Bath 26 Llanelli Scarlets 27: Hercus the outsider seals tribal conflict

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The Independent Online

Two teams fired by different motivations, apart from the obvious common bonds of Anglo-Welsh tribalism and the fixture's traditional prize of the rag doll, produced a rattling semi-final of five tries settled in scoring terms by a penalty eight minutes from time by the Scarlets' American fly-half Mike Hercus. Yank you and good night.

Bath, lowly in the Guinness Premiership, knew that winning this new tournament would earn them qualification for the Heineken Cup. The Scarlets' route to the same goal is through the Celtic League alone, for as we all know they do things differently in Wales.

The idea of the Welsh regions being subservient to the greater good of the national team is still an issue, judging by the Scarlets' foment at being refused permission by Wales to pick Dwayne Peel. The scrum-half - otherwise known as the Llanelli One, given that the rest of the Scarlets' eight Wales squad members were allowed to take part - was being rested for the next two Six Nations Saturdays. Still, it is thought that had Mike Ruddock still been Wales coach it is likely Mark Jones, Matthew Watkins, Dafydd James and Lee Byrne would have joined Peel in the stands. Perhaps on this evidence James's time is over come what may; the Cardiff Blues' Chris Czekaj, who scored a hat-trick against Ospreys on Friday, ought to represent the future.

Still, Peel's stand-in, Clive Stuart-Smith, looked determined to justify his position with a lively attitude around the fringes. Bath took the lead with a penalty by Chris Malone but were jolted when the Scarlets' loosehead prop Craig Dunlea rumbled over for a 14th-minute try at the posts. Bath were whistled up at a scrum, Stuart-Smith tapped and went in a flash, with Simon Easterby and Alix Popham supporting, and Dunlea was driven over with the help of Inoke Afeaki.

Bath's backs were noticeably revelling in their new assertiveness evident since Brian Ashton returned to the club as head coach at the start of the year. The ball zipped around and only rarely was a lumbering forward deployed to bash it up the middle. After a second penalty by Malone, the policy brought Bath's first try, by the centre Alex Crockett after 28 minutes. Matt Perry joined the threequarter line, Salesi Finau fixed his man and Crockett set off down the left wing, chipping deftly over the Scarlets' full-back Barry Davies and in control sufficiently of the bounce to hold off the cover-tackling Mark Jones.

Malone's conversion and subsequent penalty gave Bath a nine-point lead at half-time but Hercus chipped over a 40-metre penalty for the Scarlets before another sweeping Bath backs raid, with a little help from the hooker Lee Mears, got Joe Maddock in for their second try, after 45 minutes. Malone converted and Bath led 23-10.

The Scarlets' bloodline is as shot through with cup genes as Bath's, and true to their heritage they responded with two converted tries in nine minutes. Regan King finished off quick ball from a midfield ruck, then Mark Jones clattered through to the posts. The wing dotted down directly beneath the rag doll - in the Scarlets' possession by dint of the pre-regional Llanelli beating Bath in a Heineken Cup quarter-final in 2002 - swaying from the North End bar. In between Bath lost Andy Higgins to the sin bin although the referee missed Bath's England lock Danny Grewcock appearing to stamp on a prone opponent. It was replayed on the big screens for the crowd to see and some of them to boo.

Malone thumped over a penalty from halfway to re-establish Bath's advantage going into the final quarter. Afeaki gladly took on and beat a prop - David Flatman - in the preamble to Lee Mears killing a Scarlets ruck and Hercus nervelessly landing the winning points from 30 metres out on the diagonal.

Bath: M Perry; A Higgins, A Crockett, J Maddock, S Finau (N Abendanon, 47); C Malone, N Walshe; D Flatman, L Mears, D Bell (C Loader, 78), S Borthwick (capt), D Grewcock (G Delve, 76), A Beattie, I Fea'unati (P Short, 74), M Lipman.

Llanelli Scarlets: B Davies; D James, M Watkins, R King, M Jones (L Byrne, 76); M Hercus, C Stuart-Smith; C Dunlea (M Madden, 66), M Rees (A Gravelle, 71), J Davies, I Afeaki (G Quinnell, 71), A Jones, S Easterby (capt), A Popham (D Jones, 73), G Thomas.

Referee: M Changleng (Scotland).