Bath 34 Wasps 42: Bath's collapse shows Halliday that charity begins at home

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The Independent Online

Bath may be depending on the Charity Commissioners to end years of legal argy-bargy by granting them a long-term future at the beautiful Recreation Ground, but it was stretching the point just a little to pick them in their back division. The West Countrymen presented Wasps with so many gifts, the visitors must have thought it was "Love a Lawrence day". And Mr Dallaglio wasn't even on the field. Neither were half a dozen other first-choicers. A record defeat against a shell of a team? When Bath play like this, mere charity will never be enough to save them.

The prevailing circumstances made this collapse the more difficult to bear. David Barnes and Matt Stevens, the two home props, were making their 200th and 100th senior appearances in a game that sold out in less than an hour and they were granted a public audience with Andrew Brownsword, their reclusive paymaster, on the pitch at close of play. Sadly, supporters find it difficult to celebrate the achievements of the cauliflower-faced fraternity when they have just had 40-odd points inserted in a place where the sun rarely shines.

What was more, the home hierarchy had spent the hour before kick-off attempting to show their club in the most favourable of lights. Simon Halliday, a stellar centre from the golden decade now serving as a non-executive director, and Bob Calleja, the chief executive, talked of positive developments on the recruitment front, heralded the launch of "Bath Rugby TV" – not a channel that is likely to knock Manchester United's version off the top of the ratings, but a bold initiative nevertheless – and reiterated their determination to stay at the Rec come hell or high water.

And then ... splat! Seven points clear at the interval, courtesy of a circus knockabout try from Andrew Higgins and a close-range finish of considerable ingenuity by Nick Abendanon, they lost their defensive discipline immediately from the restart and did not rediscover it until Wasps had spun 22 points off the reel. Two of the three tries the Londoners scored in 17 desperate minutes were almost laughable. Numbers, angles, spaces – you name it, the home side got them wrong. Norman Lamont was better at making his sums add up than this lot.

Calculations off the field are every bit as challenging, despite Halliday's bullish assertion that he could not imagine his club playing professional rugby anywhere other than at their beloved site on the banks of the Avon. Bath have several stadium designs under consideration, all of them in the £16m, 15,000-capacity bracket. They have the active backing of local politicians and there is no evidence to suggest that the vast majority of townsfolk are anything other than wholly supportive of a radical redevelopment of the existing tumbledown venue. It is said privately that a major company has agreed to underwrite the building costs in return for branding rights. Call it the Emirates Stadium model.

Yet everything hinges on a single decision from the commissioners charged with establishing whether the club can legally build so much as a dog kennel on an open space left in trust to the people of the city decades upon decades ago. Under the terms of their current lease, Bath can continue at the Rec for another 62 years, even though the law, read in its strictest sense, says professional sport should not be played on charitable land. But Premier Rugby Ltd, the top-flight clubs' umbrella organisation, is running out of patience with all this, and the longer the commissioners deliberate – they were scheduled to make their final call back in December – the more the discomfort intensifies.

Calleja insists the chill wind of uncertainty has yet to impact on Bath's recruitment of top-drawer talent, arguing that the club's insistence on sticking to the current salary cap is far more pertinent. "We want the cap to be managed, policed and enforced," he said, adding that while firm evidence was hard to come by, there was no doubting the level of abuse in some other parts of Planet Premiership.

However, he accepted that stadium matters could soon become a disincentive for players. With Saracens and Northampton throwing cash around like zany zillionaires and the likes of Leicester and Sale highly active in the market ahead of the rise to a £4m salary cap, Bath need things to be sorted quickly.

"I think the commissioners are checking and double-checking everything to make sure they themselves will not be open to a legal challenge," the chief executive said, wearily. By the end of the conversation, he sounded more pessimistic than he had at the start.

Wasps were anything but weary. Their less celebrated players – the wing David Doherty, the centre Dominic Waldouck, the lock Tom Palmer and the hugely industrious No 8 John Hart – played superbly in the second half of a free-spirited game helped along by the willingness of the referee, Rob Debney, to concentrate first and foremost on the activities of the tackler, as a opposed to the tackled player. As a result, the contest was in starkly beautiful contrast to the nonsense of the weekend matches in the southern hemisphere Super 14 tournament, where experimental law changes fell as flat the proverbial pancake.

"I could really let rip on this," said the Wasps director of rugby, Ian McGeechan. "When the current laws are applied accurately and consistently, we have a hell of a game."

As Bath had their share of diabolical moments on Saturday, they would probably agree with him.

Bath: Tries Higgins, Abendanon, Fuimaono-Sapolu, Browne; Conversions Barkley 4; Penalties Barkley 2. Wasps: Tries Lewsey 2, Cipriani, Haskell, Leo; Conversions Cipriani 4; Penalties Cipriani 3.

Bath: N Abendanon; A Higgins, A Crockett (capt), O Barkley, J Maddock (M Banahan, 53); S Berne (E Fuimaono-Sapolu, 61), M Claassens; D Barnes, L Mears (P Dixon 60), M Stevens (A Jarvis, 80), P Short, D Grewcock, A Beattie (J Faamatuainu, 53), M Lipman, I Fea'unati (D Browne, 53).

Wasps: J Lewsey; R Hoadley (M van Gisbergen, 20), F Waters, D Waldouck, D Doherty; D Cipriani (D Walder, 80), M McMillan (E Reddan, 73); T Payne, J Ward (J Buckland, 70), P Vickery (N Adams, 80), S Shaw (D Leo, 56), T Palmer, J Haskell, J Worsley (R Webber, 73), J Hart (capt).

Referee: R Debney (Leicestershire).

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