Bath could and should have closed their side of the deal concerning next month's Premiership final at Twickenham by beating Harlequins on the other side of the A316 yesterday. Instead, they feel more stupid, if only slightly, than the record company executive who turned his back on The Beatles. Quite how a team with fame and fortune staring them in the face contrived to squander a 22-9 interval lead will remain a mystery of the age, but it was certainly an example of profligacy on the grandest of scales.
The West Countrymen finished the first half with three tries in the bag. A fourth would not only have won the match, but put them out of reach of Wasps at the top of the table with one round of fixtures remaining. They did not manage a fourth; they did not even manage victory. By failing to trouble the scorers in a second period lasting the best part of 50 minutes, they allowed a Quins side shorn of their principal power-players - Fuga, Tiatia, Monye, Harder - to sneak home with the last play of the day.
"We were lucky to be 13 points down at the break," the Quins coach, Mark Evans, admitted. "Bath did some lovely things in midfield, they scrummaged strongly and they were Rolls-Royce in the line-out. But we wondered as we talked things over in the dressing room whether they might sit on the lead and let the victory take care of itself. It's a big temptation, an entirely human reaction, when you've worked so damned hard for something and you're one try shy of a final with 40 minutes to play. But history tells us that when a team tries to win without doing much, they frequently end up losing."
And so it came to pass. Bath, so vibrant in the first half, seemed happy to play the second in their own territory. If they intended to squeeze the game dry by milking the touchlines - a strategy that would have been entirely sensible once Paul Burke had kicked Quins back into contention with a couple of penalties in the third quarter - few in the capacity crowd noticed. Chris Malone, a very decent performer before the break, was indecently wayward with his kicking after it, and when the tide-turning specialist Mike Catt appeared at full-back after 54 minutes, he was every bit as inaccurate.
Slowly but surely, it emerged that Bath were dependant on Burke fluffing his kicks. And fluff them he did, hooking horribly three times between the 62nd and 70th minutes. Unfortunately for the visitors, Andy Dunne was now on the field - and Dunne is an 85 per cent kicker at worst. The Irishman took Quins to within four points with a 30-metre penalty six minutes from time, and played a significant role in the all-or-nothing attack that resulted in Simon Keogh, a scrum-half playing on the right wing, ploughing his way over the line from close range. Dunne nailed the conversion for good measure, and headed straight for the tunnel to celebrate this unlikeliest of about-turns.
It would be stretching a point to describe Bath as a broken team; their early rugby in this game was outstanding - not least the Malone-inspired move that forced Matt Moore into conceding a penalty try by putting his head in the way of the scoring pass from a position that was almost insultingly off-side - and victory against Gloucester at the Recreation Ground on Saturday will see them right. But they have lost three away games on the bounce, the likes of Duncan Bell and Robbie Fleck are less than fully fit and their dressing room is awash with rumours of Catt quitting the club he joined as an unknown a dozen years ago.
If Catt is seriously unsettled, should he play against Gloucester? Will the selectors recall Olly Barkley, demoted to the bench for this one following a rough afternoon in Clermont-Ferrand nine days ago? Theoretically, the international classes get going when the going gets tough. But theory never won a game of rugby. After eight months of hard slog, the season is in the balance.
Harlequins: Try Keogh; Conversion Dunne; Penalties Burke 5, Dunne. Bath: Tries Penalty try, Fleck, Perry; Conversions Malone 2; Penalty Malone.
Harlequins: G Duffy; S Keogh, W Greenwood, M Deane, M Moore (R Jewell, 57); P Burke, S Bemand; C Jones (M Worsley, 49-54), J Hayter, J Dawson (L Gomez, 40), B Davison (J Evans, 49), S Miall, P Sanderson, A Vos (capt), A Diprose (L Sherriff, 26).
Bath: M Perry (M Catt, 54); W Human, S Davey, R Fleck, S Danielli; C Malone (O Barkley, 75), M Wood; D Barnes, J Humphreys (capt; L Mears, 53), D Bell, S Borthwick, D Grewcock (R Fidler, 79), A Beattie, M Lipman (J Scaysbrook, 67), I Feaunati.
Referee: D Pearson (Northumberland).
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