Bath 66 Saracens 21: Barkley and Bath make compelling case for old laws

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The Independent Online

On the face of it, even the members of the International Rugby Board's "laws project group", who bear the sport such a grudge they have spent the last three years inventing ways of wrecking it, would have loved events at the Recreation Ground: a team who could not stop scoring playing against a team who had given up on competing – a one-sided arrangement that ensured the paying public seldom waited longer than six or seven minutes to see a try and had the scoreboard moving along at Twenty20 pace. Roll up and see the show! Next, a clown doing tailspins on the pointy end of a unicorn.

In actual fact, Bath's blinding performance amounted to a thorough examination of the possibilities of rugby under the existing laws, which the overwhelming majority of union folk in the British Isles – coaches, players, supporters – believe to be entirely fit for purpose. If Saracens were not up for the contest, having spent themselves physically and emotionally in their Heineken Cup semi-final defeat by Munster six days previously, the West Countrymen were still a wonder to behold. Olly Barkley and the two Michaels, the scrum-half Claassens and open-side flanker Lipman, were the pick of the bunch, but not by much.

"I can't remember conceding 66 points – or anything like it – in any game in which I've been involved as a coach," said Alan Gaffney, the Australian sage who is nearing the end of a highly productive full-time association with Saracens. "This was clearly a difficult match for us – the people who played out there were the people we had left, basically – but Bath were exceptional, especially in the first half."

And the experimental law variations, some of which will be trialled in Europe from the start of next season? Australians are meant to love them, after all. "I don't love 'em," he replied. "I don't understand why we're being put through this."

Kevin Yates doesn't understand it either. If the former Bath prop did not exactly enjoy every minute of his return to the club that nurtured him – rugby is a painful game at the best of times, and these were some way short of the best from the visitors' perspective – he at least scored a try. But afterwards, the talk was of relief at the defeat of the most ruinous of the proposed law changes, mixed with concern at some of those that survived the IRB's vote last week.

"I feel as though we, as players, should stand up and say 'no' to it," he said. "If people are allowed to collapse mauls, and you ally that to the new regulations surrounding the line-out, the effect on the sport could be really serious. I don't know anyone who supports this stuff. Why are they doing it?"

There are plenty of people in Bath who remain equally baffled by the impending departures of Barkley, to Gloucester, and Steve Borthwick, to ... um ... Saracens. Barkley's value this season has been incalculable and Borthwick remains the conscience of the team – a captain so effective that after the Recreation Ground hierarchy did everything in their power to strip him of office, they found themselves with no option but to reinstate him. It has been a peculiar affair all round and until the whys and wherefores are satisfactorily explained, the local supporters will continue to smell a rat.

Still, success gets rid of 99 per cent of nasty odours, at least temporarily. Can Bath win the title for the first time in a dozen years? Certainly they can. Their offloading game is the best around – Gaffney, who knows a thing or two, was in no doubt about this – and with the quick-witted Claassens operating so cleverly at scrum-half, the all-important link between muscle and magic has been re-established. They are beginning to look like the great side of the golden era, only quicker and more dynamic.

Bath: Tries Barkley 2, Lipman 2, Browne, Maddock, James, Banahan, Higgins; Conversions Barkley 9; Penalty Barkley. Saracens: Tries Powell, Yates, Ratuvou; Conversions Jackson 2, Ross.

Bath: N Abendanon (S Berne, 40); J Maddock, A Crockett (Berne, 39-40), O Barkley, M Banahan (A Higgins, 71); A James, M Claassens (N Walshe, 63); D Barnes (D Bell, 26), L Mears (P Dixon, 40), M Stevens, D Grewcock, S Borthwick (capt), J Faamatuainu (I Fea'unati, 56), M Lipman, D Browne (P Short, 63).

Saracens: F Leonelli; D Scarbrough (R Penney, 78), K Sorrell (capt), A Powell, K Ratuvou; G Jackson (G Ross, 59), M Rauluni (A Dickens, 34); K Yates, F Ongaro (M Cairns, 40), C Johnston (T Mercey, 75), T Ryder, I Fullarton (D Seymour, 40), K Chesney, D Barrell (A Saull, 76), P Gustard.

Referee: R Debney (Leicestershire).

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