Gloucester's title ambitions hit by the curse of Bath

Bath 29 Gloucester 14

"What is it about this place?" asked a befuddled Nigel Melville, the visiting director of rugby, after watching his side's umpteenth failure to win a Premiership match on the banks of the Avon.

Gloucester rugby folk do not hold the Georgian city of Bath in particularly high regard - "a warm welcome to our friends from the arsehole of the universe" screamed the front page of the Kingsholm fanzine a few seasons back - and it is all they can do to pass through the god-forsaken place for 80 minutes once a season. In light of this, it is surprising that the Cherry and Whites booked in for an overnight stay before this derby at the Recreation Ground. If they had stuck to their usual routine and travelled the 40-odd miles on the morning of the game, they would have saved themselves some money as well as 24 hours of torment in the nether regions.

"What is it about this place?" asked a befuddled Nigel Melville, the visiting director of rugby, after watching his side's umpteenth failure to win a Premiership match on the banks of the Avon.

"We certainly don't handle it well down here," agreed his coaching partner, Dean Ryan. "There was so much of this game that didn't need to happen. We gave them nine points for nothing, then a try for nothing. Take those things out, and it might have been a different story."

It would certainly have been different had Ryan been on the pitch rather than in the stand, for his presence would at least have guaranteed some how's-your-father up front. But those days are long gone, and the Big Bad Wolf of English rugby now spends his waking hours deep in thought rather than trouble. When he contemplates this latest fruitless exercise in neighbourly relations, he will attempt to identify precisely why it is that Gloucester, of all the testosterone-charged teams in Christendom, find it impossible to fire anything but blanks when they travel to these parts. If he comes up with an answer, he will unlock one of sport's more enduring mysteries.

The visitors arrived with a power-scrummage, an absolute diamond of a line-out forward in Alex Brown and some serious units in the avoirdupois department - not only the two Adams, Eustace and Balding, and the mountainous Peter Buxton, but the new prop from up-country South Africa, Christo Bezuidenhout. When the Springbok front-rower took the field shortly after the interval, there was no name on his shirt. As this could not possibly have been due to the number of letters involved - the man's shoulders are broad enough to contain a short story by Tolstoy - there was only one explanation. No one at Kingsholm knew how to spell Bezuidenhout.

As it turned out, these quality pounds and ounces added up to damn-all. Brown struggled to overcome an early knee injury while Bezuidenhout made precious little impact on a Bath set-piece shorn of David Flatman, who is fast recovering from his Achilles injury and intends to start running this week. Duncan Bell, an Englishman by birth but a Welshman by nature, performed magnificently for the home side, and three of his cauliflower-faced colleagues - Steve Borthwick, Danny Grewcock and Andy Beattie - were right up there alongside him in terms of impact.

England know all about Borthwick and Grewcock, who may well face Canada at Twickenham next month in the first of this season's internationals, but next to nothing of Beattie - a point they might usefully address sooner rather than later. The blind-side flanker has recently been mentioned in the same breath as John Hall, which is close to heresy given Hall's unchallenged position in the Bath pantheon, but there is something about the muscular ferocity of his work at close quarters that marks him out as a major league talent. He laughed in the faces of the Gloucester forwards on Saturday, and when they sought to make him pay for this lack of respect, he laughed even more.

There was a smile on the face of Olly Barkley, too, and not before time. Barkley has been messed around at the Recreation Ground - outside-half one week, inside centre the next, nowhere at all the week after that. There has been little rhyme or reason to Bath's treatment of a valuable long-term asset, and there are clear signs that Jack Rowell, the director of rugby and a Barkley supporter, has engaged in some frank and forthright discussions with the Australian coaching team on this thorniest of internal topics.

Perhaps as a direct result of Rowell's intervention, Barkley was chosen ahead of Chris Malone in his optimum position of stand-off. Under considerable pressure, he more than justified his inclusion. He fluffed one very kickable penalty, but his marksmanship was generally up to scratch. He made a number of telling half-breaks, his tackling was secure and he created an opening try for Mike Tindall with a high-ball assault on the Gloucester defences that evoked rose-tinted memories of Stuart Barnes murdering opposition full-backs with bombardments of the aerial variety.

Tindall claimed the try with the butterfingered help of three Gloucester backs - Jon Goodridge, Duncan McRae and Andy Gomarsall - and wrapped things up with a second towards the end of the third quarter, cutting a measured angle direct from a line-out and stepping past the hapless Marcel Garvey like a blue-blooded member of the midfield aristocracy. As he had spent the first 20 minutes of the match scrabbling around for form like a tramp at a rubbish tip, the Yorkshireman must have felt relieved. He is, after all, dating royalty.

Gloucester, meanwhile, have Premiership trysts with Harlequins and Worcester over the next fortnight - matches that should yield them a minimum of eight points, and quite possibly 10. What is more, their least favourite journey is behind them for another year. The title challengers may have left the pit of their nightmares feeling as flat as the proverbial pancake, but suicidal? Far from it.

Bath: Tries Tindall 2; Conversions Barkley 2; Penalties Barkley 5. Gloucester: Try Goodridge; Penalties Paul 2; Drop goal McRae.

Bath: L Best; A Higgins, R Fleck, M Tindall, B Daniel (S Davey, 69); O Barkley, M Wood (N Walshe, 72); D Barnes (M Stevens, 34), J Humphreys (capt, R Hawkins, 67), D Bell (Barnes, 69), S Borthwick, D Grewcock (R Fidler 69), A Beattie (G Delve, 79), M Lipman, I Fea'unati.

Gloucester: J Goodridge; M Garvey, T Fanolua, H Paul, J Simpson-Daniel; D McRae, A Gomarsall; T Sigley (C Bezuidenhout, 44), C Fortey (O Azam 44), G Powell, A Eustace (J Forrester, 61), A Brown, P Buxton, J Boer (capt), A Balding (Fortey, 52-61).

Referee: D Pearson (Northumberland).


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