Volley leads the way as Wasps edge brutal battle

Bath 6 Wasps 10
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The Independent Online

A few hours before the Premiership final between those who had topped the table for the best part of nine months and those who prefer to win their titles by not finishing top of anything, the England scrum-half Matt Dawson expressed the view the view that for all its rampant athleticism and extraordinary muscularity, English club rugby was suffering from a lack of creative guile. It was an intriguing offering, not only because Dawson's own team, Northampton, are the artistic equivalent of a barn door, but because Bath did everything in their power to prove him right.

A few hours before the Premiership final between those who had topped the table for the best part of nine months and those who prefer to win their titles by not finishing top of anything, the England scrum-half Matt Dawson expressed the view the view that for all its rampant athleticism and extraordinary muscularity, English club rugby was suffering from a lack of creative guile. It was an intriguing offering, not only because Dawson's own team, Northampton, are the artistic equivalent of a barn door, but because Bath did everything in their power to prove him right.

The West Countrymen took the field with a finely-detailed plan of campaign in which the words "width", "space", "adventure" and "tries" were conspicuous by their absence. When it was suggested to the three wise men of the Wasps operation - Warren Gatland, Shaun Edwards and Lawrence Dallaglio - that Bath would not have registered a five-pointer in a month of Sundays, they were united in their agreement. The challengers won any amount of ball, but possession does not automatically translate into points. And without points, there are no prizes.

"We were very clear in our thinking," said Michael Lipman, the Bath flanker, through bruised lips during his after-match ruminations. "We would attack their line-out, hit Rob Howley and Alex King with everything we had, and if we couldn't break their line in that area, we would kick for position." A trifle unambitious, did he not think? "I guess so. I'd say we need to put some pace and width on our game next season if we're going to win this thing."

Only a stone-hearted barbarian could have lacked sympathy for Lipman; indeed, the 22,000 Bath supporters who headed east up the M4 wept for him and the other stand-out performers in the pack - most notably Danny Grewcock and Steve Borthwick, whose contributions from the second row of the scrum beggared belief. In all the areas that used to matter most, the challengers were miles better than the defending champions. They were on the front foot at the set-piece, they decimated the Wasps line-out - poor Trevor Leota, who looks like one of Tweedledum and Tweedledee but carries the weight of both, was substituted early in the second half after Bath snaffled 11 of his 15 line-out throws - and they turned over Wasps' ball almost at will.

And yet ... and yet. In the final reckoning, Bath failed to prove Dawson correct because Wasps proved him wrong. They may not have had much of a scrum, and they did not have a line-out of any description until Ben Gotting arrived to throw short, straight and accurately - a holy trinity entirely beyond Leota's powers of comprehension on this occasion. But Dallaglio's side did have a combination of mystery and mastery, allied to raw pace, that raised them far above the merely physical. In Howley and King, in Stuart Abbott and Tom Voyce and Mark van Gisbergen, they possessed orchestrators, distributors and runners of game-breaking magnitude. Bath could not offer anything remotely as good.

Wasps had iron too, not just up front, where Dallaglio and his marvellous flankers, Joe Worsley and Paul Volley, hustled and hassled every bit as courageously as they had in the Heineken Cup victory over Toulouse six days previously, but also in the more exposed areas of the field. On the rare occasions Bath risked an attack of agoraphobia by moving the ball more than five metres from the breakdown, Fraser Waters and Josh Lewsey made mincemeat of them. This is not a Wasps team of all the talents, because their ball-winning basics are not up to much. But they are a team who have the rarities in place. The humdrum can take care of itself, it seems.

If the story of the game is briefly told - Bath had one miserable penalty to show for their first-half dominance, Wasps shifted up a gear after the break to establish a 10-6 lead, their opponents finished the stronger without ever creating a match-winning opportunity - it also stacked up as a spectacle. The forward exchanges were gloriously brutal, and there were far more fights than points in the opening 40 minutes. Volley, caught on the wrong side of a ruck in his own 22, was so royally booted for his trouble that his continued participation defied medical logic.

But it was this same Volley, a career-long Wasp playing his last game before moving to the Mid-Pyrenees for a two-year stint with Castres, who tipped the balance decisively away from Bath by clattering Chris Malone in open field. Grewcock had provided yet more clean line-out possession and the pugilistic Martyn Wood, clear of the red mist for a moment, had found his outside-half with a crisp pass. Yet Volley somehow got to Malone, the ball went walkabout and when Voyce fed Abbott in a prairie of space towards the left touch-line, the way was clear for a 40-metre cruise to the line.

No one celebrated the completion of the European-domestic double with more enthusiasm than Volley. "I'll get my shirts from both matches signed by the players, and I'll hang them from my study wall when I move to France," he said. "Those Castres people will get a shock if they come visiting, because the first thing they'll see is a shrine to Wasps." Had he managed to win himself an England Test shirt to place alongside his club treasures, he would have headed across the Channel a completely happy man. It was not to be.

"I know the door is shut on that front," he admitted. "I'm 32 and I'm about to leave the country. It is my one regret, not winning a cap, and it hurts me. I've played my best rugby this season - I'm fitter and stronger than ever before - but it hasn't counted for anything in terms of selection. Why? You tell me. People say they pick on form, but ... oh, forget it. Let's just say it's a disappointment, and leave it at that."

Wasps also wish to leave it at that, just for the moment. They have achieved an unconscionable amount in the past couple of years - two Premierships, the Parker Pen Challenge Cup and, ultimate of ultimates, a Heineken Cup title - and they have done it playing 15-man rugby, rather than the numerically challenged version of the game favoured by many of their principal rivals. It is not easy for a born-and-bred West Countryman to say this, but good on them. Bloody Londoners.

Bath: Penalty Malone; Drop-Goal Malone. Wasps: Try Abbott; Conversion Van Gisbergen; Drop-Goal King.

Bath: M Catt; A Higgins, R Fleck, M Tindall (O Barkley 77), A Crockett; C Malone, M Wood (H Martens 80); D Barnes, J Humphreys (capt, L Mears 54), D Bell (M Stevens 48), S Borthwick, D Grewcock (R Fidler 80), A Beattie, M Lipman (J Scaysbrook 80), I Fea'unati.

Wasps: M van Gisbergen; J Lewsey, F Waters (M Denney 79), S Abbott (A Erinle 26-34), T Voyce; A King, R Howley; T Payne, T Leota (B Gotting 52), W Green, S Shaw, R Birkett, J Worsley, P Volley, L Dallaglio (capt).

Referee: C White (Gloucestershire)

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