Ambitious Bath find something solid to build on with top-six spot

Bath 19 Harlequins 15
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The Independent Online

According to the arithmetic, Bath can still qualify for the end-of-season play-offs. According to rugby logic, they have as much chance of making the semi-finals as Shirley Williams has of being mistaken for Lady Gaga. Not that the West Countrymen are overly concerned, for when it comes to mathematics, Premiership calculations are the least of their issues. As long as they find their way into next season's Heineken Cup by finishing in the top six – and they really ought to manage that now, having repelled their closest challengers with a passionate manning of the Recreation Ground barricades – they will congratulate themselves on somehow getting away with it.

There are three games left to them, two against relegation-haunted Newcastle, and when this peculiarly awkward campaign is finally over – when the Australian coach Steve Meehan departs for pastures new, thereby ending his uncomfortable back-room relationship with Sir Ian McGeechan; when the hard-pressed medical staff are finally given the time they need to repair a playing squad badly broken by injury – the men in charge can start concentrating on the really important numbers: that is to say, the amount of money they will throw at new personnel in the post-World Cup transfer frenzy; and the scale of the financial commitment they are prepared to make in attempting to build a new stadium.

As people have been arguing over the development of the Rec for many a long decade – some learned local historians believe the first objection to a new grandstand was made by Ethelred, King of Wessex – it is asking a bit much of Bath's financier-in-chief, Bruce Craig, and his chief executive, Nick Blofeld, to come up with an immediate solution. Indeed, their latest wheeze, involving the purchase of the club's antiquated training ground on the edge of town and its donation back to the city as a public space available for amateur sport, is already the subject of considerable controversy, as Jack Rowell found to his discomfort at the weekend. More than one long-standing supporter could be heard bending the former Bath and England coach's august ear on the subject of land valuation and its attendant complexities.

Blofeld, a smooth-talking optimist if ever there was one, believes progress is being made, even if plans for a 25,000-capacity stadium have been downsized by approximately one third. He is certainly right in thinking that if there were 17,500 seats and terrace spaces available at the Rec, as opposed to the current 12,000 or so, every last one of them would be filled. "This club has never had to take its match marketing even remotely seriously," he said on Saturday night. "We could do some wonderful things here, given the opportunity."

Wonderful things were in short supply on the field – Bath managed just the one brilliant attack, which was one more than Harlequins – but this was understandable. The home side knew they would be without Olly Barkley, Simon Taylor, Lewis Moody and Luke Watson, but did not anticipate losing David Flatman to a hamstring injury during the warm-up and Stuart Hooper to a heavy knock at the end of the first quarter. They ended up with an academy product in Nathan Catt at loose-head prop and two more from the kindergarten, Josh Ovens and Guy Mercer, on the flanks. Given the circumstances, they could be forgiven for failing to trip the light fantastic.

If the Londoners were pretty much at full strength and therefore had less of an excuse for misfiring, it remains the case that their reach exceeds their grasp. They played most of the positive rugby – only in the 20 minutes or so after the break, a spell described by the Quins director of rugby Conor O'Shea as "average beyond belief" were Bath truly in the ascendant – but their skills continue to lag some way behind their ambition. "We'll continue trying to play this way: we've set out our stall and there's no going back," O'Shea said. "But when things aren't working for us, we need to learn to take our foot off the pedal rather than keep it pressed to the floor."

An early try from the scrum-half Michael Claassens apart – it resulted from an unusually long run from the pedestrian England centre Shontayne Hape and some excellent linkage from the outstanding back-rower Ben Skirving – the home side spent most of their afternoon defending. In the first half, this aspect of their game left something to be desired: time and again, they tackled the likes of Jordan Turner-Hall, Danny Care, Nick Easter and Chris Robshaw, only to find inventive ways of untackling them and allowing them to proceed upfield.

After the break, though, there was more devil about Bath's work in contact, and this paid handsome dividends when they survived a goal-line siege at the death.

They also had replacements, not least the grand old Argentine lock Ignacio Fernandez Lobbe, with the know-how to contribute in the closing stages. By comparison, Quins were bereft in this department. One of their substitutes was the 22st Samoan prop James Johnston, but the impact he made off the bench was nowhere near as great as the impact he made on it. Not for the first time this season, the Londoners found themselves being manhandled and molested at the scrum.

All of which begged the question of how good Robshaw might have been had he been operating off the side of a solid set-piece. If there is a harder-working forward in England, give or take a Steve Borthwick at Saracens or a Louis Deacon at Leicester, he is playing anonymously. The Quins captain was nothing short of magnificent throughout this contest – "It's easy for someone in my position to be accused of looking at it through rose-tinted glasses, but I think he's phenomenal in everything he does," said O'Shea, admiringly – and on this evidence, he must be a live candidate for one of the very few vacant positions in England's 30-man squad for this autumn's World Cup in New Zealand.

Scorers: Bath: Try Claassens; Conversion James; Penalties James 4.

Harlequins: Penalties Evans 5.

Bath: S Vesty; M Banahan, M Carraro, S Hape, N Abendanon; A James (T Biggs, 72), M Claassens (capt); N Catt (D Bell, 61), L Mears (P Dixon, 66), D Wilson, P Short (M Lilley, 83), D Grewcock (I Fernandez Lobbe, 61), S Hooper (J Ovens, 25), G Mercer, B Skirving.

Harlequins: M Brown; G Camacho, G Lowe, J Turner-Hall, U Monye; N Evans, D Care; C Jones, J Gray (M Cairns, 49), J Andress (J Johnston, 49), O Kohn (T Vallejos 74), G Robson, M Fa'asalavu, C Robshaw (capt), N Easter.

Referee: D Pearson (Northumberland).

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