Bath 26 Llanelli Scarlets 27: Hercus' stamp of authority helps Scarlets bag big game

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It is no easy matter for a new tournament to justify its existence to the great unwashed when the playing field in the pool stage is about as level as the north face of the Eiger, half the teams cannot decide whether they give a tinker's anyway, the title sponsors are catching the first bus out of town and the two governing bodies responsible for sanctioning the competition spend most of their time trying to prevent the best players from participating. The jury is still out on the new-look Powergen Cup and it may yet take rugby's equivalent of Henry Fonda to swing the verdict in its favour, but it has at least given the paying public one contest worthy of the name.

Had this been a tie at the business end of the Heineken Cup, it would have been granted an honoured place in the annals. Bath had it won twice - at 23-10 early in the second half, they seemed more likely to score 40 than to lose the whole shooting match; at 26-24 in the last minute of normal time, they were on the brink of another bus ride to Twickenham. Yet from somewhere deep within themselves, the Llanelli Scarlets found the wherewithal to squeeze out a result. Having lost a couple of European semi-finals to late penalties, there must have been an ocean of paranoia sloshing around their collective mindset. In the event, they held themselves together admirably.

Not that every individual finished the game in one piece. Mark Jones, a Six Nations fixture for Wales, rearranged his own ribs at the last knockings and will require a good deal of treatment and a lavish helping of luck if he is to face Italy this weekend. His opposite number, the uniquely substantial Bath left wing Salesi Finau, was forced off with a "dead" leg - a very serious condition indeed for a man with legs that size. Another of the West Country club's fuller figures, Duncan Bell, also finished in considerable distress.

"He's had a rough week with illness," said his coach, Brian Ashton, "but as he was eating with his usual enthusiasm when I left the dressing-room, I assume he's OK."

Mike Hercus was just about OK, too, despite finding himself in uncomfortably close proximity to one of Danny Grewcock's size 12s. "I'd describe it as a Chabalesque moment," said the American stand-off, referring to Sébastien Chabal's latest disciplinary aberration in the Premiership - a stamping incident that cost the French No 8 a five-week suspension. Hercus claimed he was caught in what might diplomatically be called the lower abdomen. "Fortunately, I managed to get the family jewels out of the way just in time," he added.

Whether Hercus would have been quite as central to the Scarlets' victory had he been left with tears in his eyes and the voice of a eunuch is open to discussion. Mercifully, he remained whole, and threw all 12st 10lb of himself - the equivalent of a wart on Finau's neck - at the cause.

If his goal-kicking was good, his management of the waves of Llanelli attacks in the second period was better still. The rare attacking talents in the Scarlets' back division, from Regan King and Matthew Watkins in midfield to Jones out wide, repeatedly found themselves in space as Bath were coerced into playing a back-foot game - a sure sign that the man at No 10 was doing most things right.

"We were the ones who did things right in the first half, and we were still doing them right in the opening five minutes of the second," said Ashton with a sorry shake of the head. "Then, we went walkabout. I'm bitterly disappointed we lost in the way we did and in particular, I'm bloody angry about what happened between minute 45 and minute 65. I half blame myself, insofar as I've been encouraging the guys to play rugby while not stressing that there is a time to play and a time not to play.

"Instead of allowing Llanelli to attack us from five and 10 metres out, we should have been kicking the ball downfield and challenging them to attack us from 55 and 60 metres. I suppose it's bound to be a roller-coaster ride until we get it right, but it's unfortunate we got it so wrong for 20 minutes in a game as important as a semi-final."

This defeat will cut Bath to the quick. Long out of the running for a top-four finish in the Premiership, their hopes of qualifying for next season's Heineken Cup now rest solely on them winning this season's Heineken Cup, which, with the best will in the world, cannot be described as a likelihood. For a start, they face a quarter-final at Leicester on April Fools' Day. If their much-admired forward pack spends as long without the ball against the Midlanders as they did against Simon Easterby's barely rated octet at the weekend, they will be lucky to escape with a 30-point towelling.

There was nothing much wrong with the productivity of Steve Borthwick and company in the opening 40 minutes, although both Bell and David Flatman started the game at something less than 100 per cent fit and struggled to impose themselves fully on proceedings. Alex Crockett's excellent try in the 36th minute, set up by Finau's strength and the low cunning of Matt Perry, cancelled out an early maul-over score from Craig Dunlea, and when the lively Joe Maddock took Finau's inside pass to cross six minutes into the second period, everything in the Bath garden was coming up roses.

But the Scarlets, determined to prove they could win a big game without the priceless presence of Dwayne Peel at the base of the scrum, ran up through the gears, responding immediately to Maddock's contribution by sending in King on the end of a three-on-two overlap and then manufacturing an equally fine try for Jones at the sticks. An exchange of penalties concluded the scoring activity, with Hercus having the final word. Happily for him, it was not delivered in falsetto tones.

Bath: M Perry; A Higgins, A Crockett, J Maddock, S Finau (N Abendanon, 48); C Malone, N Walshe; D Flatman, L Mears, D Bell (C Loader, 80), D Grewcock (G Delve, 80), S Borthwick (capt), A Beattie, M Lipman, I Fea'unati (P Short, 80).

Llanelli Scarlets: B Davies; D James, M Watkins, R King, M Jones (L Byrne, 80); M Hercus, C Stuart-Smith; C Dunlea (M Madden, 73), M Rees (A Gravelle, 79), J Davies, I Afeaki (G Quinnell, 79), A Jones, S Easterby (capt), G Thomas, A Popham (D Jones, 80).

Referee: M Changleng (Scotland).

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