No one of sound mind would deny Nigel Wray the right to an opinion on the subject of English club rugby: having pumped untold millions into the domestic game over the last 20 years, the Saracens chairman is perfectly entitled to turn the match-day programme into his own personal Speaker’s Corner. He is growing more provocative by the week. Yesterday the businessman managed to sound like Dr Strangelove, his finger twitching over the nuclear switch as the row over the Heineken Cup intensified.
“We are happy to work with everybody to create a great European tournament,” he wrote, “and indeed to create a great England side – something we very much want – but we are clubs, and by definition the Heineken Cup is more important to us and our economic future than it is to any outside body not financially involved.” Then came the red-button line. “We will see what comes, but certainly it would be a shame if one had to invoke competition law.”
If that did not set the sirens ringing in the ears of officialdom and send an entire generation of rugby committee men heading for the nearest bunker, nothing ever will. A decade and a half ago, the prospect of the rebellious English clubs taking their argument to the European Court and screaming “restraint of trade” from the witness box froze whatever blood was then circulating around rugby’s many and varied governing bodies. The threat is every bit as chilling now.
Talking of court cases, there were those in the crowd for this game who felt like suing Bath under the Trades Description Act. The West Countrymen travelled to the capital for a top-of-the-table fixture with five of their most effective players – the centre Jonathan Joseph, the outside-half George Ford, the prop Paul James, the lock Dave Attwood and the flanker Matt Garvey – sitting on the bench: an intriguing experiment in selection that became more interesting by the minute as Saracens scored 30-odd points, secured an attacking bonus point and killed the game stone dead before the first half was out.
Bath duly rang the changes and Attwood, challenging strongly for a starting place in the England pack this coming autumn, single-handedly transformed the balance of power up front. But there was not the remotest possibility of a meaningful readjustment on the scoreboard. A 28-point cushion at the interval meant Saracens could have played their chief executive, their press officer and their cleaning lady in the back row for the entire second period and still finished in the pink.
“It wasn’t great, was it?” confessed Mike Ford, the Bath head coach – the man primarily responsible for travelling light to a venue that is fast becoming the Welford Road of the south. “But this is one game of 22 and we were never going to win them all. People will talk about the selection but you have to be deep inside our camp to know what we’re trying to do. There was a plan behind it. I put my hand up to the fact that the plan didn’t work on this occasion.”
If Ford thought he was being cunning in his choice of personnel, he ended up in Baldrick territory. Questions will be asked, most obviously about the decision to start the game with a tight-head prop, Anthony Perenise, on the wrong side of the front row. Not to mention the call at No 10, where Tom Heathcote started ahead of Ford Junior, the coach’s son, and the peculiar reluctance to launch Attwood from the get-go.
The experiment with Perenise lasted all of half an hour, James replacing the Samoan at an embarrassingly early juncture, and from that point on, Saracens found themselves in a contest at the set-piece – one Bath dominated after the break when Attwood brought his serious poundage to bear on proceedings. The phrase “if only” is the most pointless in the entire sporting lexicon, but there were many Bath followers who finished the day thinking in those terms.
Attwood crashed through Kelly Brown and Owen Farrell, two of the game’s more aggressive tacklers, for a late try to go with a length-of-the-field interception job from Semesa Rokoduguni, but from the visitors’ perspective, the damage had long been done. The David Strettle tries that bookended the opening half, one in either corner, were accompanied by a straightforward touchdown from the England full-back Alex Goode on his return from injury and a rather startling score from Matt Stevens just after the half-hour.
Stevens is not one of rugby’s more delicate petals – at 123kgs and rising, he weighs more than the average Giant Redwood – so it was something of an eye-opener to see him leap gazelle-like over a couple of Bath forwards at a ruck and land ever so gently over the line before grounding the ball for an unusually graceful five-pointer. He is a man of many parts: a naturalised South African, a double Lion, a singer, a coffee shop owner, a charity fundraiser. What he did not seem to be, until yesterday, was Saracens’ answer to Darcey Bussell.
So it was that the 2011 champions and last season’s Heineken Cup semi-finalists got the job done early and withdrew a number of key figures – the captain Steve Borthwick and the flanker Jacques Burger included – with a good 30 minutes still left on the clock, thereby ensuring they will be fresh for another day. Bath tried to do things the other way round and were quickly forced to recognise the folly of it.
Happily, the home side kept Chris Ashton on the field for the duration. The England wing, miles out of form last season, was pretty damned good yesterday, as the Saracens coach, Mark McCall, pointed out. “The way he does those things that aren’t that sexy – that’s where he’s exceptional at the moment,” he said.
An unsexy wing, playing in the same team as an outsized prop who floats like a ballerina? Strange days indeed.
Saracens: Tries Strettle 2, Goode, Stevens; Conversions Farrell 4; Penalty Farrell. Bath: Tries Rokoduguni, Attwood; Conversions Ford 2; Penalty Heathcote. Saracens A Goode (B Ransom, 65); C Ashton, C Wyles, D Taylor, D Strettle; O Farrell, R Wigglesworth (N De Kock, 59); M Vunipola (R Barrington, 65), S Brits (J George, 59), M Stevens (J Johnston, 46), S Borthwick (capt, A Hargreaves, 46), G Kruis, B Vunipola, J Burger (K Brown, 53), E Joubert. Bath A Watson; S Rokoduguni, M Banahan (T Dunn, 78), G Henson (J Joseph, 53), T Biggs; T Heathcote (G Ford, h-t), M Roberts (M Young, 59); A Perenise (P James 30), R Webber, D Wilson (K Palma-Newport, 65), S Hooper (capt), D Day (D Attwood, 51), A Fa’osiliva (Dunn, 34-40), G Mercer (M Garvey, h-t), L Houston.
Referee J P Doyle (London).