Stephen Donald's 'ridiculous' pass leaves Bath feeling small again against London Welsh
London Welsh 16 Bath 9
The long-established sporting act of giant-killing is made a whole lot easier when the supposed giants perform like midgets. Bath, once the biggest ogres in the whole of British rugby, lost much of their stature the moment the game went professional in the mid-1990s and they have been made to look small on many occasions over the years since. Today, as Nick Scott ran in a last-minute interception try from 70 metres to condemn them to a morale-deadening defeat, they felt small too.
Not least because the man directly responsible for the belittlement was one of Bath's acknowledged Big Players – and one of their biggest earners to boot. Stephen Donald, the man who kicked the All Blacks into World Cup-winning heaven in Auckland a little over a year ago, was flown halfway around the globe to lend some New Zealand-style game management, rooted in a bred-in-the-bone understanding of how to close out tight games, to a side who lost those things when such Recreation Ground greats as Stuart Barnes and John Hall retired at the fag end of the amateur era.
Gary Gold, the smart South African in charge of a heavily revamped coaching team, could barely believe his eyes when, with the final attack of the contest, Donald threw a "Hail Mary" cut-out pass off his left hand into a broad patch of no-man's land deep in London Welsh territory. Scott, a graduate of the West Country club's academy who was ultimately considered surplus to requirements, reached for the ball as though it were a piece of low-hanging fruit and tore off into the distance to complete a famous victory for the Premiership newcomers.
"We didn't for a moment underestimate London Welsh: we knew that apart from anything else, they had a strong rush defence," said Gold, who had restricted himself to the single word, "obviously", when asked if he was furious at the late turn of events. "The one thing you don't do against a defence like that is chuck a 'Hallelujah' miss-pass. I can only put it down to a rush of blood. I'm astonished that anyone should throw such a ridiculous pass." No one could accuse the former Springboks strategist of not telling it how it was.
London Welsh have been putting cats among the pigeons from the moment they did for Exeter by a point in mid-September and then won at Sale five days later. By recording this result, they have done away with the common or garden household moggy and lobbed a bloody great lion into the avian mix. If there is much more of this, at least three established top-flight clubs will be fretting over their elite status. It is now abundantly clear that the Exiles are physically resilient, intelligently prepared – Lyn Jones is playing a blinder as head coach – and resourcefully led on the field by ever-committed back-five forward Jonathan Mills, who recently swapped engine-room duties for a stint in the back row without missing so much as a single beat. They also have Gavin Henson in the pivot position: if the celebrity midfielder has not always done justice to his talent, his tactical kicking is currently one of the Premiership's more potent weapons.
Henson is no mug from the tee, either, and his accuracy ensured his side finished the first quarter of this claustrophobic but strangely compelling game six points to the good. Donald reduced the arrears with a penalty of his own on 29 minutes when the home No 8 Lee Beach failed to release his man in the tackle, and the visitors should have capitalised further when the lock Dave Attwood, one of their better performers, ploughed his way over the line at the end of the half. It looked like a try for all money, but the ball was not grounded to the satisfaction of the referee Andrew Small.
Thus encouraged, London Welsh set about Bath at the set-piece – Franck Montanella, their grisly loose-head signing from the great French scrummaging nursery of Bourgoin, had himself a ball – and even though Donald nailed two more penalties on 50 and 61 minutes, the Exiles reached the last knockings in close touch.
It was no great surprise when Gordon Ross, on the field because Henson's back injury was starting to play up, squared it with a three-pointer after Bath were blown for some illicit work at a line-out.
And so the stage was set for a winning play. Initially, it seemed as though Bath would be the ones to make it: they won a scrum on the London Welsh 22 and worked the ball into Donald's hands, leaving him with a full range of options. Only one man present was even close to guessing that the New Zealander would take the option he did. That man was Nick Scott, and he should buy himself a lottery ticket without further ado.
London Welsh: Try Scott; Conversion Ross; Penalties Henson 2, Ross. Bath: Penalties Donald 3.
London Welsh T Arscott; T Voyce, H Tonga'uiha, S Jewell, N Scott;
G Henson (G Ross 58), T Keats; F Montanella (T Bristow 65), N Briggs,
P Ion (A Joly 64), M Purdy, K Kulemin (A Brown 77), J Mills (capt), M Denbee (G Bateman 65), L Beach (D Browne 58).
Bath N Abendanon; K Eastmond, M Banahan (H Agulla 58), B Williams,
T Biggs; S Donald, M Claassens; P James, L Mears, A Perenise, D Day
(S Taylor 55), D Attwood, S Hooper (capt), G Mercer, W Skuse.
Referee A Small (London)..
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