Bath 17 Gloucester 21: Azam's muscle helps destroy ancient belief against restless Bath

Click to follow
The Independent Online

It was one of rugby's revealed truths that however Gloucester approached a Premiership fixture at the Recreation Ground – travel on the day, stay overnight to avoid the traffic, pick a running team, choose a fighting team, take the field in high heels and suspenders – they would never win one. So much for truth and revelation. At the weekend, Dean Ryan's team finally put an end to a story stretching all the way back to Aesop by beating Bath on the banks of the Avon. They could not have timed it better, for they may never have had another chance.

A second, even more ancient story – that of Bath's tangled legal position vis-a-vis the grassy rectangle on which they have played their rugby since time immemorial – is fast approaching its conclusion. Highly placed sources at the club say discussions on a temporary ground-share arrangement with the League One football club Swindon Town are well advanced and are likely to come to fruition unless the Charity Commissioners currently in control of the Rec soften their stance on the financial arrangements underpinning the club's proposals to build a 20,000-capacity stadium on the site, smack bang in the city centre.

Such a move would have obvious benefits. It would give Andrew Brownsword, the Bath chairman and financier-in-chief, ample time to explore a variety of potential development locations, most of them to the west of the city; it would allow the club to maximise its growing support base in Wiltshire, which has no top-flight rugby club to call its own. Yet the counter-argument is immeasurably stronger. The Rec is uniquely beautiful in its ramshackle way; surrounding businesses thrive on the influx of supporters every second Saturday; and a move out of town would run counter to the wishes of the overwhelming majority of residents. Swindon may be an answer of sorts, but my, what a joyless one.

There was certainly a joylessness about the action on the field, which was only right and proper. Bath-Gloucester derbies were not designed with the prettification of rugby in mind, and when Peter Buxton went high on the quicksilver Nick Abendanon at the end of the first quarter, the inevitable mass brawl continued for the best part of a minute.

Two second-rowers, the villainous-looking Will James and the old lag Justin Harrison, were singled out for a lecture by Wayne Barnes, but the referee took it no further. This too was as it should have been, given Barnes' sporting education in the dark depths of the Forest of Dean.

James would ultimately pay the price of indiscipline when he was caught getting up to no good at a ruck, but Bath were lamentably poor at maximising their one-man advantage. In fact, they fell further behind during James' spell in the cooler, and it was difficult not to reach the conclusion that they were missing every hair on the head of Olly Barkley, who left the Rec for Gloucester at the end of last season. Not only would he have spared Butch James the goal-kicking chores – the Springbok outside-half managed a zero per cent return from five shots, all of them in "piece of cake" territory – but he would have been instrumental in switching strategy once it became clear that the visitors had worked out a way of stopping Bath's off-loading game.

At least Bath did not have to endure the sight of Barkley winning the match for his new team, because he did not play for them either. However, Gloucester made light of their midfield recruit's continuing problems with an injured wrist. Willie Walker, picked at No 10 ahead of the wayward Ryan Lamb, produced better percentages than his opposite number in all sorts of ways, controlling proceedings with his tactical kicking and chipping over the points when opportunities presented themselves.

The visiting loose forwards also came up trumps, as did dear old Olivier Azam, who brought the full range of his hooker's banditry to bear on the contest. The Frenchman, 34 next month, might even have been the best player on the field.

"He's still an incredible physical force, as well as being a menace, and I thought he was outstanding," said Ryan, the Gloucester head coach, who knows a thing or two about force and menace. Had his selection, a controversial one, been vindicated?

"I'm not sure it's about vindication," he replied. "We won because we stayed massively on-plan out there, which was what I was after. We're vulnerable when we try to do things we don't talk about doing during the build-up to a game. I'd been papering over it for a while, but I wasn't prepared to do it any longer. I saw our first game, against Leicester, as a test of what we'd learned since last season, and straight away I saw the same things happening. So I drew a line in the sand."

Bath may have to draw some lines of their own over the coming weeks. Some of their rugby is breathtaking – their tries on Saturday were little gems of intelligent construction, while Gloucester managed only a soft blind-side score from Luke Narraway and a chargedown effort from Walker – but without a Barkleyesque kicking game at inside centre they are easier to second-guess and neutralise now than six months ago. Abendanon and the scandalously undervalued Joe Maddock are attacking diamonds, but they are bound to have their quiet days. Then what?

Publicly, their coach Steve Meehan insists he is "confident we have the players to change a game on the hoof". Privately, he must be wondering. But then, Bath are wondering about an awful lot at the moment. Whatever worries they have on the field pale into insignificance when compared with those they have off it.

Bath: Tries Lipman, Maddock, Abendanon; Conversion Berne. Gloucester: Tries Narraway, Walker; Conversion Walker; Penalties Walker 2; Drop goal Walker.

Bath: N Abendanon; J Maddock, T Cheeseman

(S Berne, 65), E Fuimaono-Sapolu, M Banahan (J Cuthbert, 67); A James, M Claassens (S Bemand, 65); D Flatman (D Barnes, 51), L Mears (P Dixon, 68), M Stevens (D Bell, 68), J Harrison, P Short, S Hooper, M Lipman (capt), J Fa'amatuainu (J Scaysbrook, 66).

Gloucester: O Morgan (R Lamb, 78); J Simpson-Daniel, M Watkins, M Tindall (capt), L Vainikolo; W Walker, G Cooper (R Lawson, 51); N Wood (D Young, 62), O Azam (A Titterrell, 74), C Nieto, W James (M Bortolami, 51), A Brown, P Buxton, A Hazell (A Strokosch, 78), L Narraway.

Referee: W Barnes (London).

Comments