Time for Rec to sink into history

Heineken Cup: Bath forced to think the unthinkable as Irish show of strength in Paris books semi-final place
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The Independent Online

The postponement of yesterday's eagerly awaited Hein-eken Cup quarter-final between Bath and Llanelli because of a waterlogged pitch – there will be another inspection at 9am this morning with a view to playing it at 3pm – should finally persuade the West Country club to jump ship. The Recreation Ground has the most scenic setting in England, but it is also deeply flawed.

For one thing, the capacity is a shade over 8,000, woefully inadequate for a rugby stronghold. Bath could have sold 20,000 tickets for the Anglo-Welsh encounter, but as it was, Llanelli's allocation was just 1,720.

Every time they play a big game at the Rec, Bath are effectively throwing money down the drain, unsustainable economics for a professional club. Then there is the little matter of drainage. They don't call it Bath Spa for nothing. A drop kick from the ground flows the Avon; the pitch is particularly vulnerable when the heavens open, and they did yesterday morning.

The pitch, which is council-owned, is subject not only to flooding, but also myriad planning restrictions, and the club have been hamstrung in attempts to develop the site. They have been looking at alternatives for a number of years, but yesterday's débâcle should force them to make a sea change. This is not the first time they have had to take a rain cheque.

Last season, in the Hein-eken Cup pool stage, the Bath-Newport tie was called off because of a saturated pitch five minutes before the 3pm kick-off. Yesterday the referee, Alan Lewis, inspected the ground at 9am. "It was perfect,'' Lewis said. "But then we had a deluge.'' When Lewis had another look at 1.10pm, he declared it unplayable. "My ultimate responsibility is the players' safety,'' Lewis said.

Jon Callard and Gareth Jenkins, the coaches of Bath and Llanelli, agreed with the decision, but Stuart Gallacher, the Scarlets' chief executive, criticised the hosts for not providing an alternative. "It's Bath's responsibility to come up with a plan B,'' Gallacher, who is also a director of European Rugby Cup, said. He also thought they should have waited until the kick-off time of 3pm before making the final decision.

If the Rec is unplayable today, the organisers are looking at the possibility of switching it to the Madejski Stadium near Reading, or Bristol's Ashton Gate. It could not be postponed to later in the week because of the Six Nations' Championship, which starts next weekend.

"This is too big a match to sideline,'' Callard said. "We shouldn't be jumping in cars and driving around to find a place. This is not a great advert for the game, but postponing it was the right decision. This is a good argument for making rugby a summer sport.''

It is a good argument for Bath to move to a modern stadium. Still, the club made some money at the bar. Fifteen coachloads of Llanelli supporters were dropped off at the Rec in the morning and were not picked up until 6pm.

No team have yet won the Heineken Cup after playing a quarter-final away, which makes Leinster's penalty for losing their final pool match in Toulouse a fortnight ago all the more significant. Yet the top dogs in Ireland come to Leicester today as the last team to beat the English and European champions at Welford Road. The Tigers would swiftly point out that the defeat in question was in what amounted to a dead rubber at the end of the European pool stage in January 2000. Smarting from successive defeats by Llanelli and Harlequins, Leicester are not in the mood to make it a hat-trick in front of a sell-out crowd of 16,000, twice what their opponents are used to at Donnybrook.

Leinster's setback in Toul-ouse, when a win would have given them a home tie, also cost them the services of scrum-half Brian O'Meara, out for six weeks with ruptured knee ligaments. They are missing, too, the considerable line-out presence of Malcolm O'Kelly, the two-time Lion, who fractured a cheek bone against Newcastle.

But Shane Horgan has recovered from a rib cartilage injury to partner Brian O'Driscoll in the centre, and a record 1,000 fans have come across the Irish Sea. In the back row, one of Europe's finds of the season, the Australian turned Ireland A flanker Keith Gleeson, partners former Leicester player Eric Miller and the stalwart No 8 Anthony Foley.

Leicester's director of rugby, Dean Richards, tried unsuccessfully to sign O'Driscoll a couple of years ago, but is able to field another Dublin-made box of tricks in Geordan Murphy, keen to make a final impression before Ireland name their team to face Wales next Sunday.

Richards suggested that his side's recent wobble had been firmly addressed. "The work ethic here is incredibly more professional than any other rugby club I have seen in England,'' he said.

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