Craig's millions buy too much uncertainty for troubled Bath
Bath 22 Ulster 26
Monday 20 December 2010
He may have been the most merciless back-row bandit ever to rob an opponent of his sanity and self-respect in a public place: certainly, the phrase "mad, bad and dangerous to know" was an insipid understatement when used in his connection. Roger Spurrell, the captain who launched Bath on their golden decade, travelled north from his beachside home in Cornwall at the weekend to cast an eye over his old club in their fight for Heineken Cup survival, hob-nobbing with the owner Bruce Craig in his private box, catching up with a few greying ex-playmates in the public bar, offering an opinion or two, listening to a whole lot more. It was good to see him again.
Quite what he concluded about what he had seen and heard was anyone's guess – there was always something elusive about him, even in the early days – but this much was blindingly obvious: there was not even a trace element of the Spurrell spirit to be found among the current Bath players on Saturday. Against an Ulster side missing a talismanic flanker of their own in Stephen Ferris, struggling with their discipline around the tackle area and down to 14 men at the last knockings, the West Countrymen were so lacking in killer instinct that this "should win" game became a "can't win" game almost without them noticing.
If their mathematical interest in Europe's premier club tournament remains just about intact, their prospects of progress are infinitesimal. What is more, things may well get worse before they get better. It is fiendishly difficult for a team to develop the sense of togetherness necessary to prosper at this level when the club as a whole is not comfortable in its own skin, and there is so much uncertainty at the Recreation Ground – so much rumour and theorising about the future, so much "phoney war" anticipation about Craig's plans for reshaping things on and off the field – that the next few months could prove very awkward indeed.
In Spurrell's time – the time of Palmer and Barnes, Chilcott and Hall – the clubhouse at the Rec was as much a front line as the pitch itself: post-match, the players would always drink the opposition off the premises before going their own separate ways. A couple of hours after Saturday's game, the only members of the Bath side still around were Michael Claassens and Butch James, who had stayed behind to catch up with their South African countrymen in the Ulster team.
Steve Meehan, whose long-term grip on the head coach's role has not obviously been strengthened by the recruitment of Sir Ian McGeechan as technical director and recent recasting as "director of rugby" with greater responsibility for team affairs, was honest enough in his appraisal of this latest defeat – the eighth in 11 matches across three competitions, five of them at home. "We can't find an 80-minute performance," he admitted. "If we could maintain our level of intensity through a game and operate at a constant level, a lot of things would fall into place. At the moment, it's not happening."
Ulster conceded a try after 35 seconds and were not close to their best at any point afterwards, but Meehan must have recognised in their performance something of the collective energy and commitment he craves for his own team. Despite being hurt by a deeply questionable challenge from Butch James early in the piece, Ian Humphreys was a paragon of consistency, landing difficult kicks from all areas to keep his side on the straight and narrow. In Pedrie Wannenburg, the visitors possessed a driving forward of the kind wholly absent from the Bath pack; in Andrew Trimble, they had a bold runner with a hint of the X-factor about him; in Ruan Pienaar, the Springbok half-back, they were blessed with a touch of class.
Both sides scored fine tries, but Ulster's second, claimed by the centre Nevin Spence at the end of the third quarter, illustrated the essential difference between them. It was born of confidence: the confidence to sustain an attack through a dozen or more phases; to send ball-carrying forwards – Wannenburg, Tom Court, B J Botha – into heavy traffic secure in the knowledge that possession would be recycled; to stay patient in the face of aggressive tackling. There was precious little confidence about Bath on Saturday. Craig may have many millions to throw at the club, but no one can buy things that aren't for sale.
Scorers: Bath: Tries Carraro, Banahan; Penalties Barkley 4. Ulster: Tries D'Arcy, Spence; Conversions Humphreys 2; Penalties: Humphreys 4.
Bath: J Cuthbert (N Abendanon, 61); M Carraro, O Barkley, S Hape, M Banahan; B James, M Claassens (capt); D Flatman (D Barnes, 55), L Mears, D Wilson, S Hooper, D Grewcock (I Fernandez Lobbe, 61), A Beattie (B Skirving, 61), L Moody, S Taylor.
Ulster: A D'Arcy; A Trimble, N Spence, P Wallace, S Danielli; I Humphreys, R Pienaar; T Court (P McAllister, 76), N Brady, B J Botha, J Muller (capt), D Tuohy (T Barker, 60), P Wannenburg, W Faloon, R Diack (C Henry, 60).
Referee: P Gauzere (France).
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