Bath cling on to keep European dream alive

Bath 16 Edinburgh 9: West Countrymen stay in Cup contention after courageous stand against Edinburgh
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The Independent Online

The chastened party animals of English rugby held their Christmas bash at the local racecourse last night. There were times during yesterday's exercise in acute neurosis when the choice of venue seemed grotesquely appropriate – had Edinburgh won, as they might easily have done, Bath's immediate future would have been about as glittering as Shergar's – but thanks to a goal-line stand every bit as courageous as that which earned the West Countrymen their European title in 1998, they ended the afternoon with their Heineken Cup campaign just about alive.

A tournament exit halfway through the pool stage would have been difficult to stomach, not least for the Bath chairman and investor-in-chief Andrew Brownsword, whose mood went from dark to pitch black during the drugs scandals that besmirched his organisation last season and has barely lightened since, thanks to a serious shortage of victories. As it is, the former champions remain mathematically engaged for another week at least, although they are unlikely to find the Scots in as generous a mood at Murrayfield this weekend as they were here. Edinburgh finished the match glued to the Bath line, with their energetic little scrum-half Greig Laidlaw pulling every trick in the book in an attempt to manufacture a way across it.

Even when, at the very last knockings, the home side stole possession at a ruck smack on their own whitewash, they invented a new way of giving the Scots another opportunity – Michael Claassens chucking the ball straight into the crowd behind the posts in a fit of blind panic and conceding a penalty as a result. And he's the captain!

"I was at the bottom of the ruck when I heard the ball smack against the advertising hoarding," reported Claassens' fellow Springbok, the No 8 Luke Watson (right). "Immediately, I thought 'uh-oh, I'd better get up quickly. There's more work to do'." Fortunately for Claassens in particular and Bath in general, the tackling – quite exceptional, especially from the likes of Peter Short and Julian Salvi – held firm, and after another painfully paranoid minute or so, the job was duly completed.

That Edinburgh showed precious little in the way of attacking invention on enemy soil was hardly a surprise. Generally speaking, they win about one Heineken Cup game in nine when on the road, and it is not so very long since they pieced together a spellbindingly awful run of 14 consecutive away defeats. They were, however, fiercely competitive at the breakdown and far more adept than their opponents when it came to putting boot to ball. If the Scots had Chris Paterson, who has a hell of a kicking game, Bath had Nick Abendanon, who has the kicking game from hell. Not quite the same thing, you will agree.

Yet once Paterson was substituted midway through the final quarter, it fell to the replacement outside-half David Blair to assume the punting and marksmanship duties. He was not exactly a roaring success. His drop-goal attempt from 50 metres failed to reach the sticks and there was a deeply inglorious moment when he messed up a penalty chip to the corner ... while standing in the corner. Blair's afternoon ended in injury, which just about summed it up. For their part, Bath were happier when moving the ball around by hand. Their opening try was the result of a patient build-up, followed by a quicksilver glide from the fleet-footed Abendanon, who found a way behind the otherwise impressive Nick de Luca to free Michael Stephenson down the right. The wing was held up short, but Pieter Dixon, called in at the last minute after the England front-rower Lee Mears cried off with a virus, pinballed his way over.

Try number two was scored in the same neck of the woods, Shontayne Hape stepping and off-loading after a clever interjection from the loosehead prop David Flatman. This time, it was Tom Cheeseman who found Stephenson in a little space, and this time, there was no stopping the wing. Just for a moment, it looked as though Bath might put their recent traumas behind them and treat their supporters to a little razzle-dazzle.

Sadly for them, the opposite occurred. Edinburgh, always capable of scoring with Paterson on the field, cramped the home side's style after the break and once the game descended into claustrophobia, Bath's demons returned. Not for the first time this season, they lacked a knowing head at outside-half to navigate them through the remainder of the contest and the lack of a decisive mover and shaker was felt ever more keenly as the Scots turned the screw in the final 10 minutes. Come the end, they were hanging on by their last layer of dental skin.

Quite rightly, the Bath coach Steve Meehan refused to see this victory as a "turning point". Bath's season will not turn until either Butch James or Olly Barkley – preferably both – return from long-term injury. The news on that front is healthy, however. James, a World Cup winner in 2007, says he is ahead of schedule in his rehabilitation from a knee operation and should be in a position to lace up a pair of boots next month. Barkley, who has suffered all manner of complications after breaking his leg during summer training, hopes one last blast of keyhole surgery will allow him to return within four weeks.

Bath may still be in the Heineken Cup shake-up by then. Then again, they may not. A trip to Murrayfield is nobody's idea of fun these days and defeat on Saturday will kill their remaining hopes stone-dead.

Scorers: Bath: Tries Dixon, Stephenson Penalties Little 2. Edinburgh: Penalties Paterson 3.

Bath: N Abendanon; M Stephenson, M Carraro, S Hape, T Cheeseman; N Little, M Claassens (capt); D Flatman, L Mears, D Wilson (D Bell, 69), S Hooper, P Short, A Beattie (B Skirving, 72), J Salvi, L Watson.

Edinburgh: C Paterson (capt, J Thompson, 67); J Houston, B Cairns, N De Luca, T Visser; P Godman (D Blair, 55, R Samson, 79), G Laidlaw; A Jacobsen (K Traynor, 59), R Ford (A Kelly, 69), G Cross (D Young 81), S Turnbull (C Hamilton, h-t), S MacLeod, A MacDonald, R Grant, S Newlands (A Hogg, 62).

Referee: A Rolland (Ireland).

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