He had waited nine years and 150 games, give or take, to score a try for Bath and yesterday, at a moment when his club was in significant need of a crossing of the opposition whitewash, loose-head prop David Flatman duly delivered. It was a thing of delicate beauty, completed from the traditional front-rower's distance of three millimetres with the daintiest of pirouettes – albeit a pirouette past the Invisible Man – and in the final accounting, it pretty much kept the West Country club in the Heineken Cup.
How much longer they stay involved depends on next month's back-to-back matches with Leinster, the reigning champions, and with the Recreation Ground injury list growing ever longer, those games could easily prove too much of an ask, even though the Dubliners are resigned to defending their title without any input from the recently operated-upon Brian O'Driscoll. But unlike Northampton, Gloucester and London Irish, who have yet to win a game in this season's Premiership, the 1998 winners are at least off the mark.
"If we hadn't won today we'd have been making up the numbers," admitted Stephen Donald, the All Black outside-half whose second-half penalty from long range in the World Cup final ultimately proved the decisive act in New Zealand's pursuit of the Webb Ellis Trophy. "We do have some injuries and that was a pretty young side who finished the game out there, but learning how to win in those circumstances is half the thing, isn't it? We stuffed up against Glasgow in our first match, but maybe losing that game helped us win this one. We certainly toughed it out against a pretty powerful side and it will do the team good."
Donald, making his first start forBath, made quite an impact. He opened his account with an early penalty he could have kicked with his eyes shut, but the cut-out pass he threw off his left hand to create a stroll-over try for the busy young wing Olly Woodburn on eight minutes required a far greater degree of mastery, not least because it took three Montpellier defenders clean out of the game.
The contest was still in its first quarter when the man from Waikato made another contribution, intercepting a dangerous passing movement in his own 22 and running the best part of 80 metres before being hauled down by the covering Martin Bustos Moyano. Dan Hipkiss, who had a very decent game in the Bath midfield, was on hand to continue the attack and after a ferocious ruck on the Montpellier line, in which Donald's direct opponent in the global final in Auckland, François Trinh-Duc, did everything he could to kill the ball stone dead, Flatman performed his Swan Lake routine to open up a 13-point advantage. As Donald was lining up the conversion, which he promptly missed, Trinh-Duc was packed off to the cooler for his indiscretions on the floor.
It seemed for all the world as if the visitors' first Heineken Cup away game – never before have they qualified for European rugby's elite cross-border competition – would go the same way as so many involving the likes of Agen, Bourgoin and Perpignan down the years. Their line-out was barely functioning, their midfield could not find a way of penetrating... hell, even Mamuka Gorgodze, the mighty Georgian forward who had given England so much unmitigated grief in Dunedin in September, was peculiarly quiet. Yet slowly, last season's Top 14 runners-up took a grip of proceedings, thanks largely to the energetic efforts of their two flankers, Rémy Martin, the "deadly nightcap", and captain Fulgence Ouedraogo. Bustos Moyano, who has a kick like a mule, landed a long-range penalty to reduce the arrears and might easily have rattled off two more before the interval, and even though Donald added to Bath's tally early in the second half, the Argentine wing dragged Montpellier right back into it with a try down the left on 46 minutes.
That score was not wholly devoid of controversy, for Thibaut Privat's scoring pass was so far forward it might have been thrown by a gridiron quarterback – a fact that somehow failed to register with Alain Rolland, the Irish referee. Asked what he thought, Donald played the diplomatic card. "We might get the same ref again, so I won't tell you," he said.
Sir Ian McGeechan, the director of rugby at the Rec, was a little more forthcoming. "I've given up looking at these things," he said with a sorry shake of the head. "Sometimes, I think the referee and the touch judges could work better as a three. The touch judges are called assistant referees now. Maybe they should assist the referee a bit more."
With Bath coming under the hammer at the set-pieces – by the end, neither their scrumming nor their line-out work bore much scrutiny – Montpellier could smell victory, especially with Gorgodze developing a taste for the close-quarter conflict and scattering would-be tacklers to all points of the compass. Yet Donald, aided and abetted by the excellent Michael Claassens at scrum-half, kept a cool head, which is pretty much what he is being paid to keep, and nursed his new side home. On this evidence, he will be of inestimable value to the West Countrymen over the long term, even if he does not find a way of guiding them into the quarter-finals of this competition at his first attempt.
Bath: Tries Woodburn, Flatman; Penalties Donald 2.
Montpellier: Try Bustos Moyano; Conversion Bustos Moyano; Penalties Bustos Moyano 2.
Bath N Abendanon; O Woodburn, D Hipkiss, S Vesty (O Barkley 74), T Biggs; S Donald, M Claassens (M McMillan 71); D Flatman (C Beech 55), R Batty (M Lilley 46), D Wilson (A Perenise 55), S Hooper (capt), R Caldwell (D Attwood 65), F Louw, L Moody (G Mercer 65), S Taylor.
Montpellier L Amorosino; M Bustos Moyano (Y Audrin 63), G Doumayrou, P Bosch, J Peyras Loustalet; F Trinh-Duc, J Tomas (B Paillaugue 61); M Nariashvili (N Leieimalefaga 48), A Creevy (R Van Nuuren 59), M Bustos (G Jgenti 59), J Tuineau (D Hancke 68), T Privat (M Matadigo 68), R Martin, F Ouedraogo (capt), M Gorgodze.
Referee A Rolland (Ireland).