Matt Banahan may be 6ft 7in and 16st, but for the avoidance of doubt, he is not repeat, not England's answer to Mr J Lomu Esq of Auckland, New Zealand. For a start, he is nowhere near big enough. The 6ft 7in bit just about passes muster, but the 16st smacks of midgetry when compared to the ballast of that great brute of an All Black wing. For another, he is not even English. Not yet, at any rate. Banahan comes from Jersey, which means he can play for just about anyone.
Still, the man scored three thunderous tries at the Recreation Ground on Saturday, as well as wreaking seven different shades of havoc in general play up in the air and down at River Avon level. During his days at London Irish, he was a second-row forward. Bath have made a wing of him an example of imaginative player development not often associated with the West Country club in the last dozen years and until rivals get hold of video footage and start working him out, he will continue on his merry way.
A snapshot. When Butch James set proceedings in motion by hoisting his kick-off to the right, away from his forwards, Banahan steamed upfield to win the high ball, set up the ruck and then jumped to his feet to score in the heavy traffic after a beautifully constructed Bath move featuring handling turns from those well-known playmakers Danny Grewcock and David Barnes, a clever dummy run from Matt Stevens and a delayed pass from Nick Abendanon. The time on the clock? Forty seconds, precisely.
Another touch of Banahan. After 13 minutes, he was beaten in the air by the substantial Fijian wing Apo Satala, but made amends by using his old tight-forward's strength to rip the ball clean off another islander, the Tongan hooker Vili Ma'asi. A moment later he buried Tommy McGee, the Leeds prop, with a variety of tackle wholly unassociated with the wing fraternity.
Steve Meehan, the Bath coach, has been reluctant to discuss the most unusual weapon in his armoury, but he ran out of excuses at the weekend. "It's my job to find things to improve in a player and there will be no difficulty doing that in Matt's case, but if you look at that performance and compare it with his previous effort you'll see it was markedly better," he said.
"He doesn't turn 21 for another week and has so much to learn, but he's quick for the type of athlete he is he moves in a different kind of way to your regulation wing and he's beginning to understand the way we're trying to play the game."
Brian Ashton, the England coach, saw all this with his own eyes, having joined his newly reappointed forwards coach, John Wells, in the near-capacity crowd. Yet while both men noted Banahan's contribution, their principal interest lay elsewhere. Bath should be heavily represented in the Six Nations squad due to be announced early in the new year, with Abendanon, Olly Barkley, Lee Mears, Stevens and Steve Borthwick all in the frame. Grewcock might also come under consideration on this evidence, but having missed World Cup selection through suspension it may be that he has shown his dark side once too often.
Mears, Stevens and Borthwick all played their part in a commanding per-formance up front, although the pick of the heavy mob was the least celebrated of their number, Barnes, whose achievements in recent seasons have been a triumph of quiet application. As for Abendanon, the full-back looked sharp with ball in hand but he would prefer to forget an incident seven minutes from close of play when Tom Biggs, fielding a loose kick from Joe Maddock, showed him the cleanest pair of heels in Christendom en route to the line.
All things considered, it was Barkley who made the important points. Operating at inside centre and benefiting from the time and space afforded him by the South African half-backs, Michael Claasens and the World Cup-winning James, he pulled Leeds this way and that in a performance rich in the three "v"s: vision, variation and vitality. He was at the heart of most things his scoring pass to Claasens and his gentle little toe-poke for Abendanon's late try were contrasting delights and his goal-kicking was bang on the money. England have all manner of midfield options, but it would take a bold selector to omit Barkley on this form.
Leeds had no one of a similar class, although Stuart Hooper, their captain, played his usual heroic hand. Borthwick is generally considered the hardest-working lock in the country, but Hooper is up there with him.
Sadly, even the most dedicated practitioner of the second-rower's art cannot win games alone. Leeds are well coached, hugely enthusiastic and have one or two bright sparks working their way out of the academy and towards the first XV. Calum Clark, an 18-year-old flanker of considerable promise, is foremost among them. But Premiership survival is a very long shot for the Yorkshiremen. It is said that next season they will have serious money to spend on top-drawer recruitment. By that time, they may well find themselves one drawer down.
Bath: Tries Banahan 3, Claasens, Abendanon; Conversions Barkley 5; Penalties Barkley 2. Leeds: Try Biggs; Conversion Di Bernardo; Penalty Di Bernardo.
Bath: N Abendanon; J Maddock (A Higgins, 80), A Crockett (S Berne, 63), O Barkley, M Banahan; B James, M Claasens (N Walshe, 69); D Barnes (P Ion, 63), L Mears (P Dixon, 63), M Stevens, S Borthwick (capt; M Purdy, 6-11), D Grewcock (Purdy, 63), A Beattie (J Faamatuainu, 63), M Lipman, D Browne.
Leeds: L Hinton (J Goodridge, 72); A Satala, R Vickerman, L Blackett (J Hepworth, 67), T Biggs; A Di Bernardo, J Bedford (J Brooks, 61); M MacDonald (McGee, 72), V Ma'asi (P Nilsen, 67), T McGee (M Cusack, 61), S Hooper (capt), P Bouza, J Dunbar (D Paul, 72), C Clark (A Balding, 43), R Oakley.
Referee: D Richards (Berkshire).Reuse content