James and Elissalde call it quits in mudfest

Bath 3 Toulouse 3
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The Independent Online

It had been set up so beautifully: a winner-take-all humdinger between the two great pioneers of European rugby before a capacity audience at the Recreation Ground, with Heineken Cup Pool victory and a home quarter-final among the glittering prizes. And what did we get? A wild-weather game of union masquerading as the inaugural 15-a-side scuba-diving championship, sponsored by Jacques Cousteau. To all intents and purposes, the match was played in the River Avon rather than beside it.

Even had the conditions been less end-of-the-worldish, the unexpected demise of Wasps in south-west France earlier in the day would have transformed the nature of the contest. By the time the two sides took the field – or rather, floated on to it – they were assured of their qualification for the knock-out stage. Not that the Bath players were aware that the principal business of the afternoon had been settled for them by their arch-rivals from London. "I was told on my way to the stand," said their head coach, Steve Meehan, "but after all the energy and focus we'd put into winning this game, I didn't see the point in spreading the information around."

Astonishingly, there were periods when both teams attempted to spread the ball around. Toulouse especially. Clément Poitrenaud, the visiting full-back, was probably the most adventurous of the players on view, but there were flashes of inspiration from others – the odd clever flick from Yannick Jauzion, some close-quarter brilliance from Byron Kelleher, some bright-eyed invention from the exceptional young wing Maxime Médard, who will be one hell of a player in a couple of years' time.

If Bath were less keen to chance their collective arm, it was because they spent the first half with that arm twisted behind their back. The home side suffered all manner of indignity at the scrum, and it was not until David Flatman, low-slung and freakishly strong, trundled off the bench after the interval that they started to make sense of life in the darkened recesses.

Flatman pretty much saved their bacon, in so far as the bacon needed to be saved in light of results elsewhere. By the end of the second half, the West Countrymen were exerting the kind of control Toulouse had established by the end of the first.

They might even have won at the last knockings had a 19-phase move – a spectacular triumph of discipline and application in the face of mighty adversity – yielded a kickable penalty, or had Butch James opted for a drop at goal. But Toulouse, with Thierry Dusautoir first out of the trenches, were so accurate in their tackling, there was no reason for Alain Rolland to punish them. As for James' decision to forego the drop, there were no complaints from Meehan.

"Did you see how bad those conditions were?" asked the coach. "We warmed up in hail and the weather got worse from there on in. A drop goal would have been an awful lot to ask. It would have been like dropping the ball into a bath of water and trying to kick it back out again. The idea was to keep the pressure on in the hope that Toulouse would make a mistake, which they didn't. Fair play to them."

Neither side had the easiest of build-ups to the most eagerly awaited game to be played in these parts for many a long year. The Toulouse players were delayed for eight hours by the storms that lashed their part of the world on Saturday, while Bath had spent the previous five days contemplating the ramifications of the Matt Stevens drugs scandal, the stench of which will still be hanging around the Rec long after the sunshine has returned to the Midi-Pyrénées.

"It's affected different players in different ways," said Meehan when asked about the impact of Stevens' public admission of substance abuse. "Some were able to brush it off – they'll start reflecting on it now this game is over – while others felt as though they'd been hit by a sledgehammer. The training early in the week wasn't the greatest but it improved as the week went on, and I think we delivered a very solid performance."

Michael Lipman, the Bath captain and new favourite to occupy the open-side flanker's berth for England in the Six Nations Championship after injuries to Tom Rees and Lewis Moody, played an unusually small part in that performance after being knocked cold at the start of the second quarter. Lipman clashed heads with his colleague, Matt Banahan, in an attempt to snuff out Kelleher's dangerous raid down the touchline, and finished a very distant second. While Banahan was up on his feet in a trice, albeit slightly tentatively, his skipper lay motionless until he started convulsing. Only after receiving oxygen from the medical team did he head for the dressing room, and he is not expected to play any active role in this week's England training camp on the Algarve.

Even had he stayed on the field, it is doubtful the energetic breakaway could have conjured a win for his side. The visitors had the vast majority of the scoring opportunities: Jean-Baptiste Elissalde, short of rugby just recently, missed five of his six shots at the stick, while James was restricted to a couple of chances, one of which he converted.

Given the ferocity of the downpour, the kickers did well to accumulate as many points as they did. By the time these two sides go on their travels in the quarter-finals, the West Countrymen to Leicester and the Frenchmen to Cardiff, the weather will have improved. Then we will see a different Bath, and a very different Toulouse.

Bath: Penalty James. Toulouse: Penalty Elissalde.

Bath: N Abendanon; J Maddock, A Crockett, S Berne, M Banahan; A James, M Claassens; D Barnes, L Mears (P Dixon, 67), D Bell, J Harrison, S Hooper, A Beattie, M Lipman (capt, J Scaysbrook, 21), D Browne (J Faamatuainu, 71).

Toulouse: C Poitrenaud (V Clerc, 73); M Medard, F Fritz (M Ahotaeiloa, 40), Y Jauzion (capt), C Heymans; J-B Elissalde (G Du Toit, 63), B Kelleher; D Human, W Servat (A Vernet Basualdo, 66), B Lecouls (S Perugini, 71), F Pelous (G Lamboley, 71), P Albacete, J Bouilhou (Y Nyanga, 51), T Dusautoir, S Sowerby.

Referee: A Rolland (Ireland).