Barkley's calm influence has Bath dreaming of silverware

Bath 39 Leeds 3
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Word has it that development of the Recreation Ground is back on Bath's long-term agenda. However, most locals are convinced they will eventually vacate the most fought-over few acres of terra firma in British sport and build themselves something half-decent on the city's western riverside – leaving the choristers of the nearby abbey to sing their praises in peace and the well-heeled "nimbys" in the surrounding Georgian townhouses to moan about something else. More immediately, something else has appeared on the agenda of late and it goes by the name of silverware.

There is a growing opinion around the ramshackle old Rec that they can win this thing. The Guinness Premiership, that is. They will have to beat Leicester at Welford Road this coming Saturday to give themselves a chance but, despite the heavy defeat there early last month, the West Countrymen have a can-do air about them. In April, they travelled with half a pack: no David Flatman or David Wilson in the front row; no Danny Grewcock behind them; no Luke Watson behind him. It will be different this time. They can feel it in their bones.

"The trick will be to relax a bit more," said Steve Meehan, the head coach, after watching his side put five tries past an out-paced Leeds side in clinching the last remaining place in the play-offs. "We were too tense when we last went there, too uptight. It should be easier for us to strike the right mood now, given what we've come through and where we've come from this season. I want us to play with our heads up, have a little look wherever we are on the field and do what we do best. We have to be true to ourselves."

If there was a truth to be told about Bath at the weekend, it was that, right here and right now, they are the most potent attacking side in the country. It is just about possible to imagine Northampton, with the new England backs Ben Foden and Chris Ashton in full flight, scoring the kind of try that fell to Nick Abendanon after an hour of Saturday's game, but it is less easy to see any other Premiership team performing with such style. A majority of Bath's tries were things of beauty and when the local supporters say this is the best the team have played in more than a decade, they can bring a good deal of evidence.

At the heart of this display was a midfield contribution of considerable wit and imagination from Olly Barkley, who, assuming the national selectors have not been struck blind, will travel to Australia for the two-Test series with the Wallabies next month. Asked whether the centre was currently playing the best rugby of his career, Meehan responded by saying: "It's very similar to the stuff he played in his last season here." As that stuff was very impressive indeed, it is reasonable to suggest that Barkley has struck a rich vein of form in a position that has caused England untold grief all year.

"He's a lot calmer now," Meehan continued. "I think those 12 months away at Gloucester did him a hell of a lot of good." They certainly served to concentrate Barkely's mind and give him a better understanding of the things that were really important to him. "Looking back, it's obvious that I made a bad decision to leave," he told this newspaper a year ago, after he had played his last game at Kingsholm and was heading back to the Rec. "The last time I felt like this, I was still at school: I'd had a taste of life at Bath and couldn't wait to finish my exams, return to the club and throw myself into it. It's good to recapture that same sense of excitement."

No-one watching his performance on Saturday could have had the slightest doubt that the excitement was still coursing through his veins. He set up Abendanon for the first of his tries with a long, cleverly weighted pass that gave the full-back the time and space to beat Richard Welding's last-ditch tackle. He presented Matt Banahan with a bullocking score down the left with a dancing run of the in-and-out variety; he combined intelligently with Michael Claassens to free Abendanon down the right – a position from which the latter flummoxed the otherwise impressive Kearnan Myall before touching down in the corner. Barkley also kicked beautifully, nonchalantly nailing wide-angled conversions that would have tested Jonny Wilkinson.

There was also a touching moment six minutes from time, when Joe Maddock scooted into the distance for the final try. Quite possibly one of the best three or four wings to have played for Bath in the modern era – and they have had a few good ones, including Tony Swift and Ieuan Evans – Maddock had confirmed the departure his supporters had known about for ages by taking the field ahead of the team. If anyone was wondering whether he might stay after all, the warm embrace he received from Barkley on scoring his five-pointer put them wise.

"This was never just about me," said the New Zealander, who declined to reveal his destination but has long been linked with a move to Treviso, the strongest club side in Italy. "I have a wife and a daughter to think about, and it was a family decision." Bath will miss every hair on the man's head, but with new money and new energy behind them, they will find a way to deal with it.

Scorers: Bath: Tries Abendanon 2, Claassens, Banahan, Maddock; Conversions Barkley 4; Penalties Barkley 2. Leeds: Penalty Thomas.

Bath N Abendanon (M Carraro 64); J Maddock, S Hape, O Barkley, M Banahan; A James (R Davis 61), M Claassens (capt, M Baxter 75); D Flatman (N Catt 67), L Mears (P Dixon 11), D Wilson (A Jarvis 67), S Hooper (P Short 51), D Grewcock, A Beattie, J Salvi, L Watson (B Skirving 64).

Leeds J Goodridge; L Blackett (H Paul 75), L Burrell, S Rabeni, R Welding (Paul 27-40+3, J Ford 70); C Thomas, A Gomarsall (S Mathie 44); M MacDonald (G Hardy 64), A Titterrell, J Gomez (P Swainston 20, A Moreno 80), E Lund, M Wentzel (capt), K Myall, R Oakley (J Pendlebury 64), A To'oala (T Denton 51).

Referee M Fox (Leicestershire) replaced by D Rose (Devon), 39.