Evans and Quins add dash of realism to winning formula
Bath 13 Harlequins 26: Young team seasoned with experience prove too strong for struggling Bath
The onset of November and the wintry pitches – they do not come much heavier than Bath's picturesque slab of turf by the Avon – did not faze Harlequins, as befits a team on a roll of 10 wins in a magnificent start to the season.
The multi-coloured ones had decided beforehand that the correct approach would not be about "wanging it everywhere", as their director of rugby, Conor O'Shea, put it. Instead they were at least twice as precise as Bath in the post-tackle area, and with that and a creaking scrum the home side coughed up a glut of penalties and conceded two tries to one.
"This wasn't a backs-to-the-wall victory, it was built on a very solid platform," O'Shea said. "But we're not getting carried away. We're not a great side now we're winning; we won't be a bad side when we lose."
Bath lost six times at the Rec last season and the sharpest pain for them from this defeat, added to the one against Saracens eight weeks ago, is that that they are being outdone by what they would formerly have considered flaky London clubs who used to be lucky to leave here with their bus fare home.
Harlequins were happy to attack from their 22, albeit in a narrower fashion than this still fairly young, mostly English team has tended to attempt in the past two or three seasons. The infusion of Samoan muscle in James Johnston and Mo Fa'asavalu has not gone amiss; the pair of them drove Chris Robshaw – about whom there seems to swell of "future England captain" talk currently – over for a try in the 15th minute after a rolling maul, from a line-out caught by George Robson, had been held. It put Quins 10-7 ahead – and they hardly looked back – after a penalty from Nick Evans replied to by a close-quarter try for Dave Attwood, the Bath lock, that was converted by Evans's opposite number at fly-half, Sam Vesty.
O'Shea and every other Quin is continuing to give thanks that Evans chose to stay in England for a fourth season and was therefore obliged to watch from afar as his fellow New Zealanders carried off the World Cup last month. Where Evans might very well have exulted in the Auckland fun, had he made himself available, it was Bath's new All Black No 10, Stephen Donald, who became an unexpected hero with the clinching kick in the final. Donald arrives today and after this diffident performance by Vesty – who was unsettled no doubt by missing two penalties in the first three minutes – he must be in line for a swift debut against Glasgow in the Heineken Cup next Sunday.
"We'll be looking for good game management from Stephen," said Sir Ian McGeechan, Bath's director of rugby, "just as Harlequins had from Nick Evans. We'll have a look and see how training goes. These fellows are clever and you don't need to over complicate it."
There had been worried mutterings around the Rec before kick-off that the Bath centres, Dan Hipkiss and Matt Carraro, were carrying minor injuries. But Bath had Matt Banahan away on a pre-arranged break and Olly Barkley not quite ready after a run-out for the A team on Monday.
When Robshaw scored it came from a penalty punted with swagger to touch by Evans, who had a choice of going for goal. When Evans did go for goal he did not miss with four penalties and a conversion to build a 19-10 lead until, oddly, he skewed wide from in front of the posts in the 58th minute. Bath earned a scrum penaltysoon afterwards, to sarcastic cheers aimed either at the struggling forwards or the referee – it was not absolutely clear which – and a penaltyby Vesty on 69 minutes gave them hope of a turnaround. All the more when Evans missed again from 50 metres.
Within a minute or so, however, Quins made the result secure with a curiosity of a try that neither O'Shea, McGeechan or the scorer – Mike Brown, the full-back – was quite able to explain. Brown attacked up the middle from a ruck and was tackled, with a normal pile-up ensuing. A blink of an eye later, he had regained his feet and scooped the ball up and was running somewhat agog to the posts.
"He picked up the ball and ran, like William Webb Ellis," McGeechan said, with commendable humour in the circumstances. Evans's conversion was a simple matter; not so what McGeechan does to instill some steel into his pack. From the early incident when Tom Biggs was held up by George Lowe and the excellent Robshaw, they were second best to a Quins side whose eight league wins and two in the LV Cup have matched the club's record start to a season, set in1996-97. They have eight away wins on the trot too; two nice runs as they canter into Heineken Cup matches against Connacht and Gloucester.
Bath: N Abendanon; O Woodburn, D Hipkiss, M Carraro (T Heathcote, 57), T Biggs; S Vesty, M Claassens; N Catt (C Beech, 62), L Mears (R Batty, 74), D Wilson (A Perenise, 52), S Hooper (capt), D Attwood (R Caldwell, 52), B Skirving (G Mercer, 62), S Taylor, F Louw.
Harlequins: M Brown; S Stegmann, G Lowe, J Turner-Hall, S Smith; N Evans, K Dickson (D Care, 58); J Marler, J Gray (C Brooker, 66), J Johnston, O Kohn, G Robson (T Vallejos, 75), M Fa'asavalu, N Easter, C Robshaw (capt).
Referee: D Richards (Berkshire).
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