Bath desperate to salvage something at the last after season of disappointment
Bath 27 Leicester 26: Final game at Saracens crucial to chances of a top-six finish and place in the Heineken Cup
Mike Catt, England's attacking skills coach, was asked at a supporters' event at the Rec shortly before the kick-off of this entertaining Premiership match what had changed from the days a decade and more ago when he would turn out for Bath against Leicester. "We used to beat 'em," said Catt, pithily. Bath's ensuing win by 27-26 and four tries to two could not have erased the hurt of the last few years the former champions have spent in the doldrums but it was clear from the cheers that most of the locals saw it as a big step in the right direction.
"It showed our game plan does work and that when we perform we can pull it off," said Francois Louw, the Bath captain for the day whose exultant try seven minutes from the end wrenched the lead from Leicester for a third and decisive time.
"It hasn't quite been the season we'd hoped for but there's one match to go and it's a big one." Away to Saracens on Saturday week, to be precise, when Bath are likely to need a win to stay in the top six and qualify for the Heineken Cup. Seventh place might be good enough, but only if Saracens win this season's Heineken Cup, and as the final of that competition is not until 18 May, Bath will not be able to rely on that outcome.
As the words of the 42-year-old Catt indicated before he watched Bath's Rob Webber and Dave Attwood make forceful claims to be recalled by England for the three-match tour to South America this summer, scrabbling around in mid-table was not his old club's bag when they won six league titles from 1989 to 1996.
This was only Leicester's fifth loss in the last 20 meetings with Bath in all competitions, but considering the home team missed five kicks at goal while Toby Flood landed all six of his for Leicester, the margin might have been greater. And it was a notable improvement on the away losses to London Welsh, Sale and London Irish that epitomise Bath's fitful season.
"There was huge pressure on us for this game," said Louw, standing in at skipper for Stuart Hooper.
"We've really been unlucky as a side, just not really tying it together as we'd hoped to."
The most hopeful signs for Bath, who will have seen 10 players leave and 12 arrive between the start of this season and the beginning of the next one, were their scrum and line-out going well against opponents with formidable reputations in both.
They also had some luck when the referee allowed Louw to hack the ball out of Ben Youngs's hands at Leicester's last attacking ruck, and Stephen Donald helped take play to safety up field. It was the All Black's final act on this ground before he departs for Japan. The incoming replacement, though not yet announced, is believed by everyone from the Avon to Welford Road to be Leicester's George Ford.
"Possibly more than the result, it was about showing we could live with these top-four teams," said Webber, the 26-year-old hooker with three England caps who was waylaid for 10 months with a muscle tear picked up in the 2012 Six Nations Championship. "We did that massively and apart from a few errors it could have been more convincing." Webber has an overtly aggressive style, summing up Bath's approach under a coaching panel still getting its feet under the table, but during his frustrating lay-off he saw Youngs's brother Tom wearing and excelling in the national No 2 jersey. "I got injured wearing an England shirt and I want it back," said Webber. "If I get another go I'll bite their hand off."
You suspect the key for Bath's head coach, Gary Gold, amid the heavy turnover of personnel will be the need for the club's owner Bruce Craig to stay patient during the rebuilding.
"We spoke about the need to match, if not better, Leicester's intensity," said Gold. "That's what makes Leicester unbelievable. They think they've won before they start – and most of the time they do."
Even so, Gold's Leicester counterpart Richard Cockerill did not appear too distraught at the loss; the Premiership's leading try scorers took their total to 51 with coruscating scores from two men nailed on for the British and Irish Lions: the scrum-half Youngs – who embarrassed Bath with an 80-metre run from a tapped penalty – and flanker Tom Croft, whose galloping relish for the hard ground will surely be seen again in Australia in June.
Leicester's players will be given a week off before returning to training next Monday knowing a win or draw at home to London Irish in the final regular-season match will secure a home tie in the play-offs for the fifth year running as they aim to reach a ninth successive final.
Would there be any chance of the Tigers taking a refreshing jaunt to Verbier or La Manga, in the manner of Saracens and Harlequins? "We'll stick with [the training ground in] Oadby," said Cockerill.
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