Heroes of Bath in limbo

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The Independent Online

You know you have achieved something special when 22,000 residents of the greatest rugby citadel in France serenade you from the pitch with a cacophony of boos and catcalls. For Bath, of course, special is not enough after those years of supremacy. It has to be very special.

You know you have achieved something special when 22,000 residents of the greatest rugby citadel in France serenade you from the pitch with a cacophony of boos and catcalls. For Bath, of course, special is not enough after those years of supremacy. It has to be very special.

And by beating Toulouse, the overwhelming favourites for the Heineken Cup, on their own beautifully manicured mudheap, they fulfilled the criteria with something to spare. The West Countryman were immense in mind, body and spirit; reminiscent, indeed, of the Bath of old.

There was a vicious irony about the fact that this victory, every bit as unlikely and very nearly as heroic as their rearguard trumph over Brive in the 1998 final, was not sufficient to earn them an immediate place in the last eight as one of the best two runners-up in the pool phase. They must wait for the outcome of this afternoon's Montferrand-Treviso and Harlequins-Cardiff matches - and, perhaps, the result of the postponed Grenoble-Edinburgh contest. But as Andy Robinson, the Bath coach, pointed out: "Whatever happens, we now know that we have a side capable of taking this club forward."

Robinson can be a tough hombre - his immediate reaction to yesterday's victory was to give a brief salute to the travelling Bath contingent before press-ganging anyone with a radio or a mobile phone into service as a human results service. But there was real emotion in his voice as praised his charges for a vintage us-against-the-world effort. "Give us a decent pitch and a spot of dry weather and we can play," he said. "We've got some decent footballers. I keep saying it, and one day people will listen."

There was no doubting the range of West Country talents yesterday. Pumped up by one of Ben Clarke's dressing room oration, the visitors hit the ground running - that is to say, running as Linford Christie would understand the word. Within 12 minutes they were 10-3 to the good, following Jon Preston's early penalty and a characteristically forthright finish in the left corner by Adedayo Adebayo. It was precisely the kind of try Bath had failed to score in recent weeks: sweet line-out work, crisp handling in midfield and a craftsmanlike contribution from Matt Perry, who found Adebayo with the crucial pass.

Preston, finally bringing his All Black know-how to bear after months of injury-induced frustration, converted from the left touchline and then added a second penalty to give the outsiders a 10-point cushion at 13-3. Toulouse were never likely to take the insult lying down, though; their forwards, led by the extraordinary Christian Califano, had the Bath eight by the tender parts at the set-piece and, thus encouraged, they launched a series of savage driving mauls that resulted in their goal-kicker, Michael Marfaing, reducing the deficit to a mere four points at the interval.

Toulouse looked even more dangerous when they introduced Alain Penaud after the break. The former Tricolore outside-half's raking diagonal punts immmediately put Bath on the back foot and the West Country pack looked in constant danger of spontaneous combustion. Yet they held themselves togethe: Angus Gardiner delivered a Super 12-class performance on the open-side flank, Victor Ubogu reached deep within himself and produced one of his "big Dada" performances, and young Steve Borthwick, an England lock in the making, made tackle upon tackle in the wide open spaces.

It was Borthwick who dispossed Cedric Desbrosses as the centre dived for the line in the last five minutes, and it was he who held up Sylvain Dispagne as the No 8 drove over in injury time. Something had to give, and in the dying seconds Jerome Cazalbou, wholly outplayed by Preston, took advantage of another withering Toulouse scrummage to scramble and stretch his way over. But by that time, the accomplished Welsh referee Nigel Whitehouse was preparing to call it a day.

An exceptional victory, it may not be enough to save Bath in the short term. In the long term, though, they will look back on yesterday as a watershed.

Toulouse: P Bondouy (A Penaud H-T); E Ntamack, C Desbrosses (P Lapoutge 77), S Ougier, M Marfaing; L Stensness, J Cazalbou; C Califano, Y Bru, F Tournaire (L Esposito 71), H Miorin (C Bergez 76)), F Belot (capt), D Lacroix, C Labit, S Dispagne.

Bath: M Perry; I Balshaw, M Tindall, K Maggs, A Adebayo; M Catt, J Preston; V Ubogu, M Regan (A Long 79), J Mallett (C Boyd 53), M Haag, S Borthwick, B Clarke (capt, B Sturnham 53), A Gardiner, D Lyle.

Referee: N Whitehouse (Wales).

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