Peter Bills: Bath mud fest shows true beauty of rugby

Click to follow

The commentators never thought of employing the word ‘classic’ to describe it. After all, Bath’s mud fest against Toulouse at a soaked Recreation Ground became either an aerial ping-pong kicking contest or a grinding forward battle in conditions more reminiscent of the Somme.

Rugby union is a game of multiple styles played in myriad conditions. The harder grounds of the southern hemisphere countries like Australia and South Africa generally mean more running and open play.

In the northern hemisphere in winter, be prepared to expect the unexpected.

But just because the final Heineken Cup pool match of the season did not produce a whir of flowing rugby, does not mean it wasn’t a captivating contest. In many respects it was. For a start, you had to wonder in amazement how players handled the heavy, soaked and mud-caked ball at all. In days gone by, large forwards would have dropped just about every pass made and knocked on almost every time they tried to pick up the ball.

It was a tribute to the skills of the modern player that so many of them managed to handle correctly and hold onto possession. As Bath fought, literally inch by inch to what they had hoped would be the winning score in the final moments, edging agonisingly close to the Toulouse line in a series of forward surges, you had to admire their technique.

This was a match that proved rugby doesn’t have to have six tries apiece and 40 points on the board to be an intriguing spectacle.

Just watching players trying to adapt to the conditions was a lesson in their abilities and concentration. Whether it was Toulouse left wing Cedric Heymans skipping inside an on-rushing tackler and launching a surprise counter-attack inside his own 22, Clement Poitrenaud immaculately fielding a high kick under the pressure of oncoming opponents or Bath full-back Nick Abendanon stepping inside tacklers on a downfield run, there was a huge amount to admire in this game.

Of course, the soaked pitch, the large pools of water and vast swathes of mud precluded much open play, let alone traditional back line running. But the wily ingenuity of certain players was a considerable compensation for the absence of these attractions.

Maxime Medard’s long, raking touch kick which was perfectly placed to drive Bath back into their own territory in the second half was one example. A similarly executed touch kick by second half substitute Gaffie du Toit was another.

And even up front, amongst the heavy brigade of hard grafters, mischievous props and the donkeys of the second row engine room, there were skills to be seen that would have been the envy of their forefathers even in international rugby.

Rugby football’s great appeal is that it can offer so many different styles and approaches, no matter what the circumstances or conditions. It is one of the few games able to do this to such an extent. Thus, one week we admire a fast flowing, attacking game full of silky ball skills on a dry surface and the next we see the type of forward slog in horrific conditions similar to Sunday’s at Bath.

Given those conditions, I believe it would be churlish to criticise anyone, from referee Alain Rolland to any of the players in the starting line-ups or who came on as substitutes. Merely to survive in such cold and wet was an achievement; making sense of it as some kind of rugby game was a minor triumph.

When players fall palpably short of the standards we expect from professionals, we are quick enough to condemn. Thus, it is only right we acknowledge their efforts when they continue to perform and entertain even amidst such extremity of conditions.