Bath saw their lifeline to the Heineken Cup severed yesterday, more by acts of sabotage than anything else. The European champions of 1998 outplayed Leinster for an hour, built a lead of 23-13 and then conceded 14 points in two minutes of mayhem that ended their interest in the competition. Had it happened to a different species, the RSPCA would have been called in.
Bath's chances of qualifying for the quarter-finals were already slim, but at least a victory here would have given them the incentive to perform in their final pool match in Bourgoin next weekend, when they might have got through as one of the two best runners-up outside the six group winners. "We are incredibly disappointed," John Connolly, the Bath coach, said. "The players put in a phenomenal effort and that is all you can ask."
While Bath went into a huddle at the end, Leinster milked the applause from a couple of pockets of supporters who had travelled from Dublin. Early on, as Leinster led 13-3, they broke into "Cockles and Mussels" but then the seabed went quiet until the dying minutes, when the Irish province stole the match. "I'm going home to cry," Connolly said.
Leinster made it five wins out of five, and when Treviso visit Lansdowne Road next week the Irish side will be the only unbeaten team in the Cup. A home quarter-final is theirs for the taking, but the manner in which injury-ravaged Bath began to take their forwards apart suggests that Leinster do not have the firepower to go all the way, a view which was echoed by Connolly. "I will be surprised if Leinster win it," Connolly, who is in his last season at Bath, said. "Other teams will take it to them in the forwards. That's what we tried to do, and with some success. Having said that, they have got wonderful backs and half-a-dozen potential Lions in their side."
Bath, who had been beaten 30-11 by Leinster in Ireland, got off to the worst possible start yesterday when the ultra-combative hooker Jonathan Humphreys failed a late fitness test and his replacement, Dave Ward, admirable in every other respect, threw long at the first line-out and confused everybody but the Leinster flanker Shane Jennings, who collected a kind bounce and drove over the line.
David Holwell, Leinster's New Zealand stand-off, who is good enough to keep Felipe Contepomi on the bench, converted and added a penalty in response to a long-range drop goal from Chris Malone. Those wonderful backs that Connolly was talking about threatened to put the match beyond Bath's reach in the 26th minute when Girvan Dempsey was put in the clear by a reverse pass from Brian O'Driscoll. The full-back raced in to the Bath 22, deliv-ered an inside pass to O'Driscoll and then, with the try a certainty, knocked on the return pass from the world's greatest centre.
At that point Leinster were ahead 8-1 in the penalty count, and when Holwell increased their lead with another penalty the Rec faithful greeted the decision with a chorus of catcalls. It was not as melodic as "Cockles and Mussels", but it was their only cause for which to make themselves heard.
All that changed when Bath exposed the Leinster pack by driving over from a line-out, Steve Borthwick getting the touchdown. Olly Barkley's conversion was his 25th successful goal-kick in succession, and he soon made it 26 out of 26 when his penalty in the 39th minute enabled Bath to level the scores, 13-13, at half-time.
Bath were handicapped in the second half not only by the absence of Duncan Bell, who was sent to the sin-bin for a punch on Eric Miller, but by the switching of the flanker Michael Lipman to the wing, a move which highlighted the injury crisis to their backs. You would never have guessed it. Bath proceeded to dominate, and from a monopoly of possession they hit the front when Brendon Daniel, with room on the right, shrugged off O'Driscoll's tackle for a try that raised the Rec.
Although Barkley's run came to an end with a couple of botched penalties, he kicked one in the 71st minute to make it 23-13, and Bath were still in Heineken Cup business. In the 76th minute Malone had a kick charged down by his opposite number and Holwell regathered to score at the posts: 23-20. In the 78th minute O'Driscoll, deep inside his own half, had a kick half- charged down but was able to hack on the rebound. When Matt Perry was caught close to his line, the ball was moved right, where there was such a huge overlap that the lock Malcolm O'Kelly was able to gallop over: 27-23.
"If you judge us on results I'm very happy," Declan Kidney, the Leinster coach, said. "If you judge us on our performance we have a huge amount of work to do. I'm just delighted to be in the quarter-finals. We showed stickability and we might become a nuisance."
Bath: M Perry; J Maddock (J Scaysbrook, 40), A Crockett, O Barkley, B Daniel; C Malone, N Walsh; D Barnes, D Ward, D Bell (M Stevens, 60), S Borthwick (capt), D Grewcock, A Beattie, I Feaunati, M Lipman.
Leinster: G Dempsey; S Horgan, B O'Driscoll, G D'Arcy (F Contepomi, 75), D Hickie; D Holwell, G Easterby; R Corrigan (capt), S Byrne (R Nebbitt, 48), E Byrne, L Cullen (A McCullen, 52), M O'Kelly, E Miller, V Costello, S Jennings (C Potts, 67).
Referee: J Jutge (France).