Rec crew back and in the running

Bath 24 Northampton 6
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The Independent Online

The Bath supporters, in a record attendance, spent half the game trying to identify the new faces in blue and black. It was easier to count, on one hand, the players they knew.

One who has survived the reformation is Olly Barkley, capped by England as a youngster a couple of years ago and destined to be capped again. Yesterday Barkley, who has been employed at various times in most positions outside the scrum, reminded everybody that reports of a precocious talent were not exaggerated.

With both sides missing plenty of familiar international names, Barkley stood out, not least because of a try that reminded those with long memories of halcyon days at the Rec.

Barkley does not look anything like Jeremy Guscott, but what the centre produced here was breathtaking and reminiscent of the gifted one. On a sweltering day by the Avon in this endless summer, Barkley, at inside-centre, took a short and sweet pass from Chris Malone at speed and with a swerve and even an old fashioned sidestep left three defenders for dead in a glorious 30-yard run to the line.

Those in the extended, albeit temporary, Virgin Mobile stand were on their feet. Bath, who have spent the summer recruiting people from all over the place, need all the season-ticket holders they can get. They have a huge monthly wage bill - and that's just for the coaching staff, which has mushroomed again this season with the arrival of John Connolly as head tactician. Bath now have almost as many coaches as Wells Fargo.

So far for Connolly, so good: played two, won two and Bath are second in the Zurich Premiership when a few months ago they were at the bottom. Very early days to be sure but at the very least players who, like Connolly, would have to ask a policeman for directions to the Roman baths, are not stinting in their efforts for their new club.

Bath played with a hunger, enthusiasm and aggression and, Barkley's touch of magic aside, they were the qualities that drove them to a handsome victory by three tries and three penalties to two penalties.

Almost instant hero-worship for the likes of Brendon Daniel, Martyn Wood and Rob Fidler. Remember Fidler? He used to play for the enemy Gloucester. Yesterday when he limped off in the second half, they applauded him to the heavens. Strange days.

At the beginning it didn't look great for Bath when they were awarded an attacking scrum and lost possession as their forwards were crunched in the collision. Northampton saw an opportunity, but when John Leslie gave an inside pass to Nick Beal the full-back fumbled and Michael Lipman picked up to send the right wing Lee Best over for a gift of a try. Remember Lipman and Best? Used to play for the enemy Bristol.

Northampton went from bad to dreadful. They had two leaders in Leslie and Mark Connors but appeared hopelessly devoid of direction and purpose. They gave the impression of being coached by Wayne Sleep rather than Wayne Smith. Their handling in perfect conditions was faulty and goodness only knows how they managed to score 37 points at Sale last week. They looked lost without their international forwards including the flanker Andrew Blowers, who was concussed against the Sharks.

After Barkley's solo effort gave Bath a 10-0 lead, he exchanged penalties with Shane Drahm. Barkley's goal-kicking is a hit or miss affair. He went on to kick two more penalties but missed a couple of others and was off target with the three conversions, one of which barely made it across the goal-line.

Before Northampton made it considerably harder for themselves, Daniel, in an impressive run in which he beat Dan Richmond and Bruce Reihana, came close to laying on a try for Jamie Williams. The referee Dave Pearson, who had taken a dim view of the Saints almost from the outset, issued the flanker Darren Fox and the prop Chris Budgen with yellow cards for killing possession.

At this stage you might have thought that Bath would go hell for leather in pursuit of a bonus point but instead, with Northampton reduced to 13 men, they settled for a Barkley penalty. Nevertheless, they got a third try, if no bonus point, when Wood's speculative cross kick to the left corner was tapped back by Andy Beattie straight into the hands of Scott Gray, who crossed unopposed.

In injury time Northampton finally looked as if they might cross the Bath line when Reihana was released down the left flank but the New Zealander was cut down by a splendid tackle from that man Barkley. While Bath did a lap of honour, Northampton went into a huddle. Saints alive? Barely.

Bath 24 Northampton 6
Tries: Best, Barkley, Gray; Pens: Drahm 2
Pens: Barkley 3

Half-time: 13-3 Attendance: 9,381

Bath: J Williams; L Best, A Crockett (R Kydd, 79), O Barkley, B Daniel (G Knox, 80); C Malone (H Martens, 80), M Wood; D Flatman, J Humphreys (capt; L Mears, 63), D Bell (M Stevens, 63), R Fidler (S Gray, 70), S Borthwick, A Beattie, I Feaunati, M Lipman (J Scaysbrook, 63).

Northampton: N Beal; J Sleightholme (O Ripol, 47), M Tucker, J Leslie (capt), B Reihana; S Drahm, M Robinson (J Howard, 68); B Sturgess, D Richmond, C Budgen, M Lord, S Williams (G Seely, 68), M Connors, M Soden (J Phillips, 79), D Fox.

Referee: D Pearson (Northumberland).