The parallels with the World Cup final between South Africa and New Zealand almost exactly two decades ago go only so far: with all due respect to Bath and Saracens, who will contest the Aviva Premiership title at Twickenham this weekend, it is difficult for any top-flight club to roam freely across the moral high ground, as Nelson Mandela did to such electrifying effect in Johannesburg in 1995, when the continuing argument over salary cap issues threatens to leave the domestic game up to its eyeballs in the swamp.
But nobody blessed with the good fortune to watch Bath’s seven-try performance at the Recreation Ground on Saturday evening will argue with the idea that English club rugby has its very own version of the thrilling All Blacks team of Osborne and Wilson, Little and Mehrtens, Kronfeld and Brooke – not forgetting, of course, a bloke by the name of Lomu.
Those ultra-dynamic Kiwis ran down the curtain on the amateur era by running the majority of their opponents ragged from all points of the compass. By beating Leicester 47-10 despite spending well over half the semi-final being smashed around by the visiting forwards and staying alive on scraps of possession that barely amounted to starvation rations, the West Countrymen succeeded in making a similar point about the nature of the union game: namely, that there is one hell of a lot more to it than an 80-minute dogfight at the tackle area and endless driving mauls from five-metre line-outs.
The question is this: if Bath stay true to themselves at Twickenham, as they surely will unless the heavens open sufficiently wide to force a temporary abandonment of their commitment to the virtues of width and movement and making the ball do the work, can the ravenous Saracens “wolf pack” contain, disrupt and ultimately break them as the iron-willed, supremely motivated Springboks broke the New Zealanders all those years ago? The neutral may shiver at the thought, but it is far from impossible.
Listening to Mike Ford, the Bath head coach, in the minutes after this most bewitching of displays, it was clear that he and his colleagues were acutely aware of the danger ahead. “Saracens will know what’s coming,” said Ford, who, in another life, was briefly in charge at the London club. “They’re excellent when it comes to the kick-chase stuff, Owen Farrell will nail his goals and if you play at the wrong time against them, they’ll turn you over. But we intend to keep doing what we’re doing. I remember coaching Oldham to a rugby league grand final back in the day and changing things in the week of the game. We lost, and I learnt my lesson.”
He is right to fear Saracens, whose 29-24 victory over the reigning champions Northampton at Franklin’s Gardens was a triumph of hard-bitten application. They will be far stronger off the bench than Leicester, shorn of eight leading players, were on Saturday, and they have a pack capable of asking just as many questions of the Bath forwards at close quarters as Marcos Ayerza, Dan Cole and Graham Kitchener posed on behalf of the Tigers. In addition, it is inconceivable that David Strettle and Brad Barritt will miss as many tackles, or chuck as much ball on the floor, as Vereniki Goneva and Christian Loamanu did at The Rec.
If the referee, J P Doyle, had been harder on Bath when they were under the cosh in the second quarter – after he had sent the full-back Anthony Watson and the No 8 Leroy Houston to the cooler for sins committed during a desperate goal-line siege, a penalty try seemed an inevitable next step – and had Freddie Burns been better off the kicking tee, Leicester might have made a Saracens-type fist of it. But whenever the ball travelled through Bath hands, the Midlanders were shredded.
The sight of Watson (some player by any standards) rampaging from deep; of Semesa Rokoduguni and the hat-trick man Matt Banahan running powerfully in the wide channels; of the midfielders George Ford, Kyle Eastmond and Jonathan Joseph bringing the tricks of triangulation to bear on a befuddled Leicester defence… these ringing declarations of attacking intent begged the biggest question of all: if Bath can do this with England-qualified players, why not England themselves?
Ford, enjoying perhaps his most satisfying moment as a coach, was ready with his response. “People tell me they’re too small for international rugby, that they don’t have the power,” he said. “But you can pick powerful wings to complement that midfield, can’t you? There are a thousand and one things you can do.” At that moment, as the glazed-eyed Leicester players boarded the bus for a miserable trip home, the counter-argument was hard to find.
Yet this much is certain: Saracens will be working on one, and it would be just like them to come up with something good. Therein lies the fascination of next weekend’s final. It would be far too glib to characterise the game as a fight between rugby’s versions of good and evil – the Londoners have many qualities, not least a deep sense of togetherness that allows them to pull off victories of the kind they registered in the first of Saturday’s ties – but if Bath should beat them in the way they beat Leicester in front of a full house of 82,000, rugby’s sense of the possible will be transformed. And that is no small thing.Reuse content