Bell takes toll on Wasps' ageing forwards

Wasps 9 - Bath 12
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The Independent Online

There was a definite whiff of confusion about proceedings at the Causeway Stadium as the rival coaching teams picked over the bones - not literally, but only just - of another heavyweight 12-rounder between the champions of old and the champions of the here and now, who have developed a mutual antipathy that, in any other walk of life, would see a restraining order slapped on the both of them. Warren Gatland of Wasps could not begin to fathom how Danny Grewcock lasted all but 10 of the 80 minutes - "He is," spluttered the New Zealander, "a loose cannon" - while John Connolly of Bath struggled to find any logic to support Olly Barkley's current absence from the England team.

There was a definite whiff of confusion about proceedings at the Causeway Stadium as the rival coaching teams picked over the bones - not literally, but only just - of another heavyweight 12-rounder between the champions of old and the champions of the here and now, who have developed a mutual antipathy that, in any other walk of life, would see a restraining order slapped on the both of them. Warren Gatland of Wasps could not begin to fathom how Danny Grewcock lasted all but 10 of the 80 minutes - "He is," spluttered the New Zealander, "a loose cannon" - while John Connolly of Bath struggled to find any logic to support Olly Barkley's current absence from the England team.

Yet the reason for Bath's third consecutive victory away from the Recreation Ground, one that put them within whispering range of a top-three position in the Premiership, was crystal clear to anyone equipped with a full complement of functioning eyeballs. Bath scrummaged superbly, while the Londoners' set-piece was abject. There you have it, neatly wrapped in a gift box with a pink bow on top. The rest - the line-out work, the warrior-like contest between Johnny O'Connor and Michael Lipman at the breakdown, the gulf in pace and ambition between Wasps' attacking back three and Bath's steady-as-you-go trio - was so much wallpaper.

Gatland, an All Black hooker who made his name as the central component of a dynamic Waikato scrummage, knew full well that this was the case.

"We got a good, old-fashioned dicking up front," he said, politely, "and we need to look hard at ourselves in that area. In fact, we have to decide whether one or two of our players are still up to the mark. They've been great servants to this club, but to be perfectly honest, the scrum isn't good enough at the moment and it's an issue of great concern. We were tested in the set-piece on occasions last season, but came through pretty well. This time, it may be that some people are on the wrong side of the ledger."

Strong words, every last one of them bang on the money. Craig Dowd, a countryman of Gatland's and one of the more celebrated front-rowers in the silver-ferned annals, is 35 now, and it he takes too many hidings on the scale of the one dished out by Duncan Bell in the last half-hour of Saturday night's game, he will be lucky to see 36. Tim Payne, capped by England in Australia last summer, will not be capped by anyone ever again if he continues to struggle as he did here. Will Green, a tight-head specialist of considerable repute, is currently enjoying a richly deserved testimonial, which probably says everything about his long-term prospects in that most demanding of positions.

Not to put too fine a point on it, Wasps were smithereened. Time and again, they were turned over at the scrum - not just shoved off the ball, but dumped on their backs with their legs in the air, like a small colony of dying flies. Bath found it so easy that on one occasion, they pushed themselves off their own ball and allowed Alex King to free Josh Lewsey on a 70-metre rampage that might, on another day, have resulted in a match-stealing try. That would have been too much for West Country flesh and blood to stand, for the visitors were all too aware of last season's Premiership final at Twickenham, when they squeezed the pips out of Wasps and still lost.

On this occasion, Chris Malone was sufficiently accurate with the boot to keep his team ahead of the game. His second penalty, shortly after the interval, was a mammoth effort; the others, shorter in range, were the result of intense forward pressure in the "red zone". Bath were no great shakes in the wide open spaces - they rarely are these days - but with a pack like theirs, they will get by more often than not. Bell, added to the mix when David Barnes left the field with a broken left arm, was magnificent. So too was the South African-born Matt Stevens, once he moved to the loose-head side and started careering around the field like one of the more substantial species to be found on his father's game park. If England are to play Stevens in the future, he should be at No 1, not No 3.

There were, however, flashes of class outside the scrum, not least from Barkley, whose defensive display against the formidably constructed Ayoola Erinle was everything it should have been and more. "He's matured tremendously this season," Connolly said. "I can't think of any reason why he shouldn't play for England in Cardiff in the first Six Nations match, unless the selectors consider our match with Leicester to be more important. I'm all for that, of course, but I don't see it happening somehow."

Barkley is by no means certain to start, despite the persuasive evidence in his favour. Grewcock, on the other hand, is a surefire bet in the second row, always assuming the disciplinarians of the Rugby Football Union do not get on his case in the interim. Not for the first time, the Bath lock found himself at loggerheards with Lawrence Dallaglio - put the two of them on the same rectangle of mud, and they are like cat and dog. On this occasion, he trampled over the former England captain after a brief but meaningful grapple on the floor.

"I spoke to the referee at half-time, and was told that while there was some stamping, it was not malicious stamping," reported Gatland. "Apparently, it was one of those friendly stamps you get now and again," added Gatland's assistant, Shaun Edwards, with withering sarcasm. That's the trouble with Grewcock, of course. Too conciliatory by half.

Wasps: Penalties Van Gisbergen 2; Drop goal: Brooks. Bath: Penalties Malone 4.

Wasps: M van Gisbergen; J Lewsey, R Hoadley, A Erinle, T Voyce; J Brooks (A King, 56), W Fury (H Biljon, 56); C Dowd (W Green, 70), B Gotting (J Barrett, 70), T Payne, S Shaw, R Birkett, L Dallaglio (capt), J Worsley, J O'Connor (T Rees, 80).

Bath: M Perry (R Davis, 77); A Crockett, A Higgins, O Barkley, A Williams; C Malone, N Walshe (M Wood, 70); D Barnes (D Bell, 45), L Mears, M Stevens, D Grewcock (R Fidler, 70), S Borthwick (capt), A Beattie, I Fea'unati, M Lipman (J Scaysbrook, 70).

Referee: D Pearson (Northumberland).

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