Varndell reveals rare nasty side as Bath run out of ideas
Wasps 29 Bath 15
It threatened to be a tale of the unexpected: Bath, one of the Premiership's more leaden-footed sides, transported the Adams Park crowd into a parallel universe by scoring a blinding opening try inside 25 seconds, and the weirdness continued when Tom Varndell, who does not list ferocious physicality among his attributes, was sent to the cooler for an over-aggressive tackle on his direct opponent, Horacio Agulla. As tackles of the passive variety are widely considered to be beyond the Wasps wing, the paying public could be forgiven for not believing their eyes.
Happily, from the perspective of the home supporters, the most historically charged and eagerly awaited of yesterday's Premiership matches reverted to type soon enough. Wasps, perhaps the most improved team in the competition, took the spoils by playing at the kind of pace that allowed their game-breakers – Christian Wade and Elliot Daly out wide, Billy Vunipola and the outstanding Springbok loose forward Ashley Johnson up front – to set about unravelling one of the better defences in the country.
Despite their early points – they led 12-3 midway through the first quarter – the West Countrymen were neither imaginative nor opportunistic enough to unravel their hosts in return. The way Bath are currently set up, with the terminally ponderous duo of Stephen Donald and Matt Banahan forming the all-important creative axis at Nos 10 and 12, they will always struggle to cope with a counter-attacking side as good as Wasps if they fail to establish complete control at the sharp end.
"Would we like more X-factor players? Ask any coach in the country, and he'd say 'Of course we would'," said Toby Booth, one of the senior members of the Bath back-room team brought together at the end of last season to serve under the South African rugby director Gary Gold. "It's like asking someone if they'd like the winning lottery ticket. We have some talented players in our squad, without question, and we're recruiting on the basis of a particular philosophy. It will take time. We're a new group, working on a new structure."
It was just about as far as Booth could go without talking out of turn. Indeed, he did not really need to say that much, for it hardly required a coaching mind as highly developed as his to identify the serious issues at the heart of Bath's game yesterday. One or two of their regular go-to men, most notably the South African back-rower Francois Louw, looked knackered. One or two more looked like nothing more than honest strivers, which is pretty much what they are. The Recreation Grounders are short of genuine class in important areas, and they know it –hence their interest in the England centre Jonathan Joseph, currently playing for Booth's old club London Irish, and, it is whispered ever more loudly, the young Leicester outside-half George Ford. Never less than honest, Booth acknowledged that his side's efforts in the game-shaping department left something to be desired. "We made some average decisions," he lamented. "When we were points up, we were guilty of chasing the ace a little too hard. Why? This was an important match for us in terms of keeping pace with the league leaders and we made no secret of the fact, so maybe that put us on edge. We won't know until we pick over the bones and take a close look at how we managed things. This is for sure, though: it's difficult to sustain pressure if you don't keep hold of the ball. Every time we turned it over, we gave Wasps a chance to keep the scoreboard moving."
Which is exactly what Wasps did, with great glee. Behind to Nick Abendanon's solo try almost straight from the kick-off – the full-back fielded the first clearance kick from the home side's outside-half Stephen Jones and beat both Varndell and the alarmingly out-of-sorts Joe Simpson with embarrassing ease to touch down in the right corner – they were so much busier in so many areas of the field that the tide had turned well before the end of the first half. Even though Michael Claassens, one of Bath's more energetic performers, claimed a second try down the wing Varndell would have been occupying had he not been incarcerated in the sin bin, the smart money was on the Londoners from an early stage. Jones kicked three penalties between the fourth and 25th minutes to keep his side in reasonable touch and then converted a sucker-punch try as the interval loomed. Wade, small of stature but unnervingly fleet of foot, took a floated pass from his captain, Hugo Southwell, after a typically high-octane Wasps attack involving the ever-inventive Johnson and made an unholy mess of Donald and Tom Biggs en route to the line. It was a heavy-traffic score that should have been beyond a wing of his size, but extreme pace gives even the most dimensionally challenged a chance. Tom Heathcote replaced Donald for the second half and immediately reduced the deficit to a point when Wasps fell offside in midfield. But Bath found themselves under pressure whenever one of the opposition runners turned up the blowtorch and two more Jones penalties gave the home side a winning lead.
That lead was extended, decisively, eight minutes from time when Daly, now operating on the left wing after starting at outside centre, chipped for the line and was brought tumbling to earth by Abendanon, who caught him with a sneaky little trip that was well worthy of the yellow card soon to be flourished in his direction. Simpson, having an easier time of it in the last quarter than he had experienced in the preceding three, latched onto the ball and when Biggs hit him with a cover tackle, he flipped it up to Chris Bell for the completion. Nicky Robinson, on for Jones, duly added the extras. It was no more than both teams deserved.
Wasps Tries Wade, Bell; Cons Stephen Jones, Robinson; Pens Stephen Jones 5. Bath Tries Abendanon, Claassens; Con Donald; Pen Heathcote.
Wasps: H Southwell (capt); C Wade, E Daly, C Bell, T Varndell (A Masi 63); Stephen Jones (N Robinson 66), J Simpson; S Taulafo (T Payne 73), R Thomas (T Lindsay 72), P Swainston (W Taylor 64), J Launchbury, J Cannon (M Wentzel 60), A Johnson, J Haskell (Sam Jones 73), B Vunipola.
Bath: N Abendanon; H Agulla (D Hipkiss 68), K Eastmond, M Banahan, T Biggs; S Donald (T Heathcote h-t), M Claassens; P James (C Beech 68), L Mears, D Wilson (A Perenise 74), S Hooper (capt), D Day (D Attwood 47), F Louw, G Mercer (W Skuse 54), B Skirving.
Referee: A Small (London).
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