All but one of the numerous rugby pitches along the banks of the Avon were deep under water yesterday: only a team boasting Jacques Cousteau at full-back and Noah at loose-head prop could have operated on the Crown Field or Hick's Field or Lambridge.
The exception – an entirely miraculous exception too, given the state of the place 24 hours previously – was the Recreation Ground, but Bath still managed to live down to the prevailing weather pattern by turning in their wettest European display for many a season. Had the 1998 champions been kitted out with flippers instead of boots, they could not have been more inept.
As the West Countrymen's standing in the Premiership – fourth from bottom and far from hunky-dory – is a considerably more accurate reflection of their current condition than anything they achieved over the six weeks of the Heineken Cup pool stage, this quarter-final was always likely to be a serious test of their mettle. Llanelli, still on a Himalayan high following their famous victory over Leicester at Stradey Park, invariably do the basics well in a knock-out environment, and Bath knew that nothing short of a top-notch attacking effort would suffice.
The only top-notch aspect of the Bath act turned out to be the bacon sandwiches on sale behind the posts at the clubhouse end. If Mike Catt, described by his coach, Jon Callard, as "the general", had more than a touch of the Light Brigades about him – tactically, the England midfielder got it badly wrong – he was far from alone. Matt Perry, Kevin Maggs, Andy Long and Nathan Thomas have been among the most dependable players in the side over the last few months, but they made unforced errors by the bucket-load on this occasion.
The selection was not up to much, either: Callard's decision to sideline Gareth Cooper, Mark Regan and Dan Lyle for half the match was rather less than inspired.
Stephen Jones was inspired, though. While Catt's overblown kicking game had the effect of playing Llanelli's back three into form – Garan Evans, a career wing playing out of position at full-back, picked the Bath captain's angles with the ease of an orchard-keeper picking apples from low-hanging branches – his opposite number's kicking game had the effect of keeping the Scarlets on the boil. Having slotted eight penalties from eight attempts against Leicester in his previous outing, the international outside-half went eight-from-eight again here. He dropped a very tasty goal, as well. Right now, he is the most reliable kicker in the European game – and yes, that includes young Master Wilkinson and old Signor Dominguez.
Llanelli were a dozen points to the good by the end of the first quarter – ironically enough, Catt's misguided policy of arguing the toss with the Irish referee Allan Lewis gave Jones his fourth penalty – and the difference had grown to 18 points by the time Gavin Thomas, the one member of Bath's starting line-up who summoned the wit and energy to test the visitors, scored a well-worked try on 66 minutes. Even that was a trial, though. Olly Barkley had thought he was on his way to the line 60 seconds earlier, but he was rudely disabused of the notion by Guy Easterby, who pulled off the cover tackle of the season, and of most other seasons into the bargain.
One way or another, the Welshmen hurt Bath with their highly physical approach to the defensive art. When Salesi Finau, the Tongan Terminator, clattered Mike Tindall early in the second half, the England centre was forced to retire with what looked like a dead leg. He was lucky to escape so lightly: Finau usually leaves his victims with a dead everything. He is some sight, the South Sea islander: at least three-quarters of his body weight appears to be concentrated in the lower third of his frame, and his legs might have been constructed by the firm responsible for the Great Pyramids.
Gareth Jenkins, the Llanelli coach, believes his charges are "efficient and effective" rather than outrageously gifted. "If you look at the other semi-finalists and compare us player by player, we probably don't stack up against them," he said. "What we are good at is playing within our limitations. We do it with desire, with spirit and with an intense focus on applying our strategy." He is too modest by half. Llanelli can win this competition, without a doubt. They have a high-class line-out – the Cooper-Wyatt-Hodges combination made an unholy mess of the Bath throw yesterday – and they have muscle to burn, especially in the back row and midfield.
And Bath? What do they have? Plenty of nothing, now that Europe has slipped away over the horizon. Four months to go, and barely a a pot to play for. It is not an exciting prospect.
Bath: Try G Thomas; Conversion Barkley; Penalty Barkley. Llanelli: Penalties S Jones 8; Drop goal S Jones.
Bath: M Perry; I Balshaw, M Tindall (T Voyce, 53), O Barkley, K Maggs; M Catt (capt), A Williams (G Cooper, 53); D Barnes, A Long (M Regan, h-t), S Emms (D Dorsey, 74), S Borthwick, D Grewcock, M Gabey (D Lyle, h-t), G Thomas, N Thomas.
Llanelli: G Evans (B Davies, 41); W Proctor, N Boobyer, L Davies, S Finau; S Jones, G Easterby; M Madden (P Booth, 77), R McBryde, J Davies, V Cooper, C Wyatt, D Hodges (D Jones, 77), S Easterby, S Quinnell (capt).
Referee: A Lewis (Ireland).Reuse content