Banahan's red card muddies water for Bath

Northampton 15 Bath 13
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The Independent Online

"Winning games in the Premiership," decreed Steve Meehan, the Bath coach, in the immediate aftermath of this malevolently claustrophobic contest at a packed Franklin's Gardens, "comes down to personal pride – to a willingness to fight for your mates, for your club, for your supporters. It comes down to the individual doing what is necessary." Fine words, and accurate too. But not quite accurate enough. Bath had all those qualities in spades and still lost, largely because the clarity of their thinking failed to match the depth of their feeling.

Let us use Matt Banahan as an example. Why not? The referee did. When Banahan went hoofing into a ruck close to the left touchline 11 minutes from time and gave the prone Stephen Myler a tattooing with his studs, the assistant official Bob Mullis had no hesitation in recommending a red card – advice accepted by David Rose, who promptly gave the England wing the rest of the afternoon off. The upshot was predictable, if a little cruel, as the arch-finisher Chris Ashton claimed a try down Banahan's flank in the last attack of the match. Myler converted to claim the spoils. Talk about rubbing it in.

Meehan was spitting tacks – "We'll see what happens from a judicial point of view, but that wasn't a red card offence," he said, in a tone that brooked no argument – while his opposite number, Jim Mallinder, called the decision "harsh". There was a degree of confusion. If, as the Bath camp claimed, Mullis informed Rose that Banahan had connected with his victim's head, the referee had no option but to go the whole hog. Unfortunately for the officials, Myler was heard to say later he had been caught on the arm.

This was beside the point, however. Boots on bodies are illegal, in practice if not in rugby law, and while all right-thinking people yearn for the return of rucking (as opposed to stamping or kicking) in the way William George Bunter craved another jam doughnut, the position is as it is. By climbing into a pile-up, legs pumping like pistons, with an official in the immediate vicinity, Banahan showed himself to be one of two things: supremely reckless or plain daft.

There was a grim inevitability about all this, for the match started at boiling point. A tasty little flare-up at the opening scrum set things rolling – if Dylan Hartley, the outstanding Northampton hooker, was among the first to contribute, Soane Tonga'uiha and Julian Salvi were still at it half a minute later – and the crimson undercurrent was evident throughout. The less Rose understood about who was doing what to whom at the set-piece, the more the crowd barracked him. Banahan's transgression at least gave the referee the chance to be decisive.

By winning the try-count in a game this tight, Northampton could legitimately plead "not guilty" to the charge of daylight robbery. Yet Bath, only a couple of points off the foot of the table at kick-off, did enough to win, and would probably have done so had their form of the last three months not left them so frazzled. David Wilson showed precisely why England see him as a 2011 World Cup prop, absorbing the best Northampton could throw at him in the scrum, while Luke Watson, the No 8 from Springbok country, hinted at riches to come.

"I'm proud of that performance: we played with courage, purpose and desire," said Meehan, well aware of the mutterings from supporters who assume a coach on a losing streak will soon be a coach without a job. "The thing for us to produce it every week." A little intelligence would be welcome, too.

Scorers: Northampton: Tries Ashton 2; Conversion Myler; Penalty Geraghty. Bath: Try Hape; Conversion Little; Penalties Little 2.

Northampton: B Foden; C Ashton, J Clarke, J Downey, J Ansbro; S Geraghty (S Myler 60), L Dickson; S Tonga'uiha, D Hartley (capt), E Murray (S Bonorino 60), C Lawes (C Day 65), J Kruger, P Dowson (S Gray 60), N Best, R Wilson.

Bath: N Abendanon; M Stephenson, M Carraro, S Hape, M Banahan; N Little, M Claassens (capt); D Flatman, L Mears, D Wilson (D Bell 62), S Hooper, D Grewcock (P Short 42), A Beattie, J Salvi, L Watson.

Referee: D Rose (Devon).