And so it came to pass shortly after the year’s turning, with European rugby politics in meltdown and most of those charged with running the sport steadfastly refusing to address the major issues of the moment – why bother with a summit meeting when you can watch Guyana play the Galapagos Islands in the 48th round of World Cup qualifiers and then enjoy a sundowner on the beach? – that two of England’s biggest clubs provided a timely reminder of just how much the Premiership has brought to the union game in these islands.
No wonder the Welsh regions want as big a piece of it as they can get. Not to mention those who pay to watch those poor benighted teams every week – honest rugby folk who were effectively disenfranchised by their governing body when the old club league was disbanded a little over a decade ago and now, shamefully, find themselves in danger of being disenfranchised all over again.
When they look across the River Severn and see a domestic club game being played on this scale, they must yearn with every fibre of their being for a joining of hands across the water.
“Two good packs, two sets of backs who genuinely wanted to have a crack… I reckon that was a pretty good advert for the Premiership,” said Richard Cockerill, the Leicester director of rugby, with a broad smile. Two points here. Firstly, it must have been one hell of a contest if Cockerill felt he enjoyed the spectacle after being deprived of victory by one solitary fluffed conversion attempt. Secondly, it was just about the first time in months that he had managed to say something non-controversial. Not even the buttoned-up moral majority in rugby’s public prints could conceivably find anything worth objecting to on this occasion.
It was a belter, no question. Bath, who travelled this well-worn road uncomfortable in the knowledge that their single Premiership win at Welford Road had been way back in 2003, led for the vast majority of the game: only twice, early in the first half and at the fag end of the second, were Leicester anything but second best. But when it comes to making the best of a bad job – of chiselling out a result in the face of adversity – the Midlanders are as resourceful as anyone, anywhere. When, with mere seconds left on the clock, Jamie Gibson was asked to hit the bullseye with one last, last shot at salvation, he did not look like missing.
Gibson’s touchdown at the corner flag in Matt Banahan’s strong-armed tackle would have won the game for the champions had Owen Williams added the extras with the last act of the match, but the young Welshman’s kick started right and stayed that way. Which was fair enough, all things considered, for if Leicester’s resurgence had the 22,000-plus crowd transfixed, Bath had been every bit as compelling in establishing what looked like a decisive lead in the third quarter and in fighting like dogs when the pressure came on in the fourth.
Some of the visiting backs played with the air of Test performers in the making, not least the teenage wing Anthony Watson, whose 14th-minute try was a minor masterpiece in the art of finishing. George Ford, another impressive contributor, and Nick Abendanon made the early inroads – a smart pass off scruffy possession from the former, a quicksilver break from the latter – but Watson still had plenty to do. Leicester’s wide defenders are no mugs, but it may take them another fortnight to work out where the Bath man went after drawing in Miles Benjamin and Niall Morris with a step so light and airy it bordered on the ethereal.
Benjamin, who had opened the scoring with a fine try of his own, played pretty well after this unwelcome turn of events, but he could do little to prevent Kyle Eastmond and the hot-running Ford creating a second Bath try for Francois Louw. And when Ford sent Jonathan Joseph over at the sticks with a short pass that may or may not have been forward – “You could watch it a million times and still not make up your mind,” Cockerill said, generously – it seemed Leicester would be broken. To avoid that fate, they had to hit overdrive up front: indeed, it is safe to say that neither Thomas Waldrom nor Gibson were used to working quite as hard for the tries that squared things up.
As bright academically as he is rugby-wise (his studies in classics at Oxford are on hold) the fast-improving Gibson caught the eye every bit as frequently as the Champagne Charlie brigade in the Bath back line. There are those who considered the former London Irish back-rower a little too nice for the shop-floor life at Leicester – “If he’s moved up there to be intellectually challenged, he’ll end up being precisely that,” was the wisecrack at the time – but according to Cockerill, he is making a proper fist of it. “You have to earn the right to play first-team rugby here,” he said. “Which is what Jamie has done, definitely.”
It may well be that these two sides will meet again this term, at the semi-final stage. “If we have to come back here then, we won’t be frightened,” said Mike Ford, the Bath coach. No one will be scared of spending good money to watch it, either – proof, if any were needed, that the best of the Premiership is very good indeed.
Leicester: Tries: Benjamin, Waldrom, Gibson; Penalties: Williams 4. Bath: Tries: Watson, Louw, Joseph; Conversions: Ford 3; Penalties: Ford 2.
Leicester: M Tait; N Morris, V Goneva, T Flood (capt), M Benjamin; O Williams, B Youngs (D Mele, 62); M Ayerza, T Youngs, D Cole, L Deacon, E Slater (S De Chavez, 58), J Gibson, J Salvi, J Crane (T Waldrom, 62).
Bath: N Abendanon (H Agulla, 78); A Watson, J Joseph, K Eastmond (O Devoto, 72), M Banahan; G Ford, P Stringer (M Roberts, 59); P James (N Catt, 59), R Webber (E Guinazu, 70), A Perenise (J P Orlandi, 67), S Hooper (capt), D Attwood (D Day, 68), M Garvey, F Louw, C Fearns (L Houston, 67).
Referee: J P Doyle (London).
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