There are things in rugby that bemuse and bewilder, such as England's move to drop Tom Rees for their autumn meeting with the All Blacks, and things that beggar belief: for instance, the decisions of Danny Cipriani and James Haskell, apprentice internationals who have achieved rather less than their advisers appear to think, to play contractual hard-ball with a club as successful and supportive as Wasps. And then there are mysteries that passeth all understanding. A capacity crowd at Welford Road witnessed one of these yesterday.
How, in the name of all that is holy, could Bath play a Leicester team off their own park for well over an hour, lead 22-9 with less than 10 minutes of normal time remaining and still lose? Given that the West Countrymen constructed an entire golden decade on the foundations of hard-won victories in Tiger territory, they, of all people, should have understood the value of their double-digit advantage and defended it with their very lives.
Yet there were two very good reasons why this magnificent piece of sporting theatre turned itself on its head so unexpectedly that it might have been scripted by Lewis Carroll. The most obvious was a late move to uncontested scrums – yes, that old chestnut – that galvanised Leicester as surely as it undermined the visitors, who had bravely established something resembling complete control at the set-pieces after neutralising the threat posed by opponents as formidable as Martin Castrogiovanni and Julian White. The second was more difficult to quantify, but may well have proved even more significant.
Last Tuesday, the Midlanders lost the services of their head coach, Heyneke Meyer, who flew home to Pretoria on compassionate grounds. Yesterday, it emerged that both of the South African's parents-in-law were terminally ill, and that Meyer might not be back before the end of the season – or, indeed, at all. "I plan to speak to Heyneke in a couple of weeks but at this stage, everything must be driven by him," said Peter Tom, the Leicester chairman. "We have a strong coaching team in place here and we're happy to leave them in charge until the situation clarifies itself. I don't think it's useful to speculate, but there must be a question mark over whether he will return."
Meyer had a tearful meeting with the squad before departure, and there was something about the way his players cranked up the heat in the closing stages that suggested they might be running on raw emotion – always a rich and potent fuel in a game as intense as this one. Certainly, the two late tries scored by the England flanker Tom Croft were celebrated as wildly as any in Leicester's recent history.
They would not, however, have reined in their visitors so completely but for Castrogiovanni's abrupt disappearance with a "tweaked back" a few seconds after Croft's initial five-pointer. The Argentina-born Italian had been filling in for another stricken prop, Boris "slight bang on the head" Stankovich, since the middle of the opening period and had suffered more than his share of indignities, as had the tight-head specialist White. With no other prop on the bench, there was no option under International Rugby Board regulations but to depower the scrums completely. As a result, the superiority established by David Barnes and Duncan Bell over the course of 70 exhausting minutes evaporated.
"I'm not saying it's the sole reason we lost, but it didn't help," said Steve Meehan, the Bath coach, through gritted teeth. "Our props are sitting in the dressing room knowing they didn't get the opportunity they deserved to really assert themselves in the closing minutes." Did he think the Leicester props were genuinely injured? "Who knows?" came the reply.
Unlike one or two other Premiership clubs of repute, Leicester have no reputation for pulling a fast one on the scrummaging front. As the bullet-headed Richard Cockerill pointed out: "It's a sterile game without scrums, and we're not the sort to go around instructing our props not to push." But as always, the move to uncontested set-pieces affected the shape and tenor of the contest.
The Tigers benefited from the kind of quick ball they had been unable to secure hitherto, and after a drop goal from Derick Hougaard that pulled them back to within five points, they laid siege to the Bath line in an injury-time attack that ended with Lewis Moody setting Croft free on a short-range overlap for the equalising score. Decisively, Hougaard hit the spot again with a right-sided conversion. It was harsh on Bath, who had played intelligently for much of the afternoon.
Barnes deserved a medal for his efforts, as did the lock Stuart Hooper and the outside-half Butch James, who created the opening try for Hooper with a leg-pumping drive in the Leicester 22 and also manufactured one for Joe Maddock, the two southern hemisphere recruits operating in perfect harmony down the right.
In between, there was a subterranean score for another import, Pieter Dixon, who capitalised on some athletic cat-burgling at the line-out.
Even in defeat, Bath could take a degree of satisfaction from having performed with greater wit and imagination than their hosts.
They have reshaped their game to meet the demands of the Experimental Law Variations more effectively than any other team in the country, with the exception of London Irish, and with James in his pomp, they have a match-winner in the pivot position. But for all the Springbok's efforts, he could not win this match for them. The effect on confidence could yet be profound.
Leicester: Tries Croft 2; Conversion Hougaard; Penalties Hougaard 3; Drop goal Hougaard. Bath: Tries Hooper, Dixon, Maddock; Conversions James 2; Penalty James.
Leicester: G Murphy; M Smith, D Hipkiss (S Rabeni, 63), A Mauger, J Murphy; D Hougaard, J Dupuy; B Stankovich (M Castrogiovanni, 8-13 and 22, B Deacon, 72), B Kayser (G Chuter, 53), J White (T Varndell, 85), M Corry (capt, M Wentzel, 52), B Kay, T Croft, L Moody, C Newby.
Bath: N Abendanon (J Cuthbert, 85); J Maddock, A Crockett (capt), S Hape (E Fuimaono-Sapolu, 50), A Higgins; A James, S Bemand (M Claassens, 50); D Barnes, P Dixon (R Hawkins, 85), D Bell (A Jarvis, 72), S Hooper, P Short (J Harrison, 46), A Beattie, J Scaysbrook (M Lipman, 50), D Browne.
Referee: C White (Gloucestershire).Reuse content