Barkley pulls strings to help Bath sew up fourth place

Bath 39 Leeds 3: Steve Meehan's team complete their remarkable rise up the table to set up a semi-final at Leicester
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The Independent Online

Bath gathered their entire squad and back-room staff into a mega-huddle of joy after charging into the Guinness Premiership play-offs. The only fly in the ointment – and it was debatable whether the head coach, Steve Meehan, pointed this out as he addressed his troops – was that the only team Bath have failed to beat in the run of 11 wins in 12 matches which secured them fourth place is the one they must play away in the semi- finals next Sunday: Leicester.

It has been a remarkable rise from second-bottom to qualifying for the title shootout in four months although, in truth, Bath were always in a false position. This is their third successive top-four finish. The return from injury of three key players, Olly Barkley, Butch James and Lee Mears, has been one factor; Luke Watson's arrival from South Africa in November was another, in the general shakedown after the five players tainted by last summer's drugs scandal had departed. Then there was the extra leeway afforded by referees at the breakdown in recent weeks, though at its apotheosis, Bath's style is all about passing before contact.

The only question yesterday was how much contact Bath would encounter from a Leeds side who had made themselves safe from relegation. It might be guessed the answer was "not much" when Bath led 17-0 by half-time. True, it took the home side 20 minutes to score – and they were facing 14 men by then, as Leeds's venerable scrum-half, Andy Gomarsall, was in the sin-bin for preventing Michael Claassens' quick tap – but that was due mainly to a series of loose passes as Bath sought the open spaces. In the end it was a straightforward move from a scrum which did the trick, Shontayne Hape running a decoy while Claassens and Olly Barkley fed the scorer, Nick Abendanon, who beat Richard Welding's tackle.

Unfortunately, Mears, who will be hoping to reclaim his England hooking spot on the summer tour of Australia and New Zealand, was already out of the fray, with what Meehan called "a bang on the ribs". Abendanon would score again after 60 minutes, by which time Bath were 34-3 ahead and cantering. They were inconvenienced three times when the television match official turned down tries but they finished with five, four of them shared by Abendanon and his fellow outside backs, Matt Banahan and Joe Maddock.

Barkley converted Abendanon's first try and accumulated 14 points with the boot, as well as providing a lovely offload for Banahan's try in the 58th minute. There was a Barkley penalty for offside after 27 minutes, then Watson at the base of a scrum set Claassens free on the short side for an easy – too easy – break on a wide arc past the fly-half Ceiron Thomas for Bath's second try. It was converted by Barkley, another hot tip to tour with England.

It was all rather festive, which was just as well for the dozens of souls who watched the action on a large screen on the cricket field in the chilly drizzle, screened from the rugby pitch by one of the stands. A slightly odd way to consume your live rugby.

Bath's new owner, Bruce Craig, is said to be none too fond of the limelight and he did not join the parade after the final whistle. Before that, Barkley and Thomas swapped penalties in the first seven minutes of the second period for Bath to lead 20-3 but the half was mostly a wave of home attacks, now towards the posh seats which could fall to the Rec wrecking ball if Craig's grand plans for a new stadium and training centre come off.

Leeds's current suffix has been particularly apt in their successful campaign for survival. Dale Carnegie knew how to win friends and influence people and Leeds's coaches, Andy Key and Neil Back, have earned the admiration of many an observer. Here they ended up with a back division of all-sorts and a front row easily dealt with by Dave Flatman, back after missing four matches with an arm injury, and friends. Joe Maddock, who is leaving Bath in the summer, finished the scoring with six minutes remaining after a move of many passes, the most lavish of which being Claassens' back-handed one.

"We were tense and uptight when we lost at Leicester at the beginning of April," said Meehan. "We want to go up this time and play to our potential."

Bath N Abendanon; J Maddock, S Hape, O Barkley, M Banahan; B James (R Davis, 62), M Claassens (capt); D Flatman (N Catt, 68), L Mears (P Dixon, 11), D Wilson (A Jarvis, 68), S Hooper (P Short, 51), D Grewcock, A Beattie, L Watson, J Salvi.

Leeds Carnegie J Goodridge; R Welding (H Paul, 22-30; J Ford, 68), L Burrell, S Rabeni, L Blackett (Paul, 75); C Thomas, A Gomarsall (S Mathie, 45); M MacDonald, A Titterrell, J F Gomez (P Swainston, 17; A Moreno, 79), E Lund, M Wentzel (capt), K Myall, A To'oala (T Denton, 51), R Oakley (J Pendlebury, 65).

Referee M Fox (Leicestershire; D Rose, Warwickshire, 32).