Worcester 18 Bath 36: Barkley the boot forces Brain to fathom failure of discipline

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The Independent Online

A meeting between two renowned sets of agoraphobics might easily have persuaded the Worcester groundsman to give the Sixways pitch a rest and play the game in a broom cupboard, but yesterday's proceedings were more open and considerably more entertaining than anyone in the capacity crowd had a right to expect.

Bath edged the try count by the odd one in five, but that was far from the most significant factor in their success - only the second by a visiting side in the Premiership since this time last year. The real story lay in the penalty count, which the home side won far too easily for their own good.

Worcester's coach, John Brain, is a man of sound rugby reason - he learnt his rugby down the M5 at Kingsholm, after all - and he knew exactly why his team went belly-up here. "That game could have gone either way, but when you concede as many penalties as we did, the likelihood is that such matches will go against you," he said. "I talked about discipline at half-time. What did we do straight after the interval? Give away two more penalties. We let ourselves down, and that annoys me."

Bath have not finished second in a game of rugby since John Connolly, their head coach, flew home to Queensland last month, leaving the operation in the hands of his countryman and protégé, Michael Foley. From this coming Sunday, when Brian Ashton ends a nine-year absence from the Recreation Ground by returning as top dog, the former Wallaby hooker will slip back into a supporting role once again.

But he has performed one hell of a turn-around in these last few weeks, winning four on the bounce in three competitions. If, as is distinctly possible, he too heads back to Australia over the coming weeks, it will be their gain and Bath's loss.

Of late, the West Countrymen have found some dynamism in the backs to go with all that route-one aggression up front. True, two of yesterday's tries came from interceptions - the first of them run in from 40-odd metres by Chris Malone, who is no one's idea of a rugby-playing Linford Christie; the second from fully 60 metres by Gareth Delve, whose performance at No 8 throughout the preceding 82 minutes had been nothing short of spectacular.

Yet it is also true to say that the Bath threequarters in general, and Olly Barkley in particular, are unrecognisable from the unit that were struggling to find their way up one-way streets as recently as four weeks ago.

Strange to relate, their problems yesterday were rooted in an inability to protect the ball at the breakdown, usually the most dependable part of the Bath act. Time and again in the opening quarter, Worcester found ways of turning them over on the floor - and this in the absence of their senior open-flanker and captain, Pat Sanderson, who cried off with a back injury. The home side reached the interval 13-10 ahead and would have been better off still but for Malone's charging down of Shane Drahm's kick and completion of a sucker-punch try towards the end of the opening quarter.

What was more, Worcester began the second half with a numerical advantage. Duncan Bell, one of the larger specimens in the professional game, flopped on to the wrong side of a ruck, and after receiving a few toe pokes into his ample backside - in truth, his assailants could not possibly have missed - he was packed off to the cooler.

Sadly for the hosts, their indiscipline allowed Bath to escape punishment. "We scored five points during that 10 minutes, they scored six," moaned Brain. "That was the turning point."

While Worcester's five came from an excellent try by the energetic Kai Horstmann, it was Barkley the Boot who was emerging as a potential matchwinner along with Delve, whose ball-carrying in the heavy traffic and mighty commitment to the defensive chores marked him out as a potential World Cup forward for Wales.

Barkley hit the spot with penalties on 44, 46, 53 and 61 minutes to give Bath a 22-18 advantage, and then drove Worcester back with a pearl of a touch-finder to put his team within five metres of another score. The home side messed up their throw, Andy Beattie cottoned on to the loose ball and after a couple of rucks, Malone found the space to dummy over to the right of the posts.

That was pretty much that, but there was still time at the last knockings for Delve to set a crown on his afternoon's efforts with a joyous romp to the Worcester line, pursued every inch of the way, but not closed down, by the despairing Thinus Delport. "Gareth played well," agreed Foley, a trifle Scrooge-like in his praise. "I know him, though, and I can tell you that he's better than that. He's had his setbacks with injury over the last couple of years, but he's a genuine talent."

Bath have one or two more genuine talents to fit into their side, not least the wings David Bory and Frikkie Welsh. They started yesterday's game 13 points off the Heineken Cup qualifying positions. With the ever-imaginative Ashton on his way, that gap may be reduced to nothing in very short order.

Worcester officials said yesterday that Sanderson, who made a positive impression for England during the autumn internationals, was unlikely to return to the side before the resumption of European activity in mid-January.

Worcester: Tries Penalty try, Horstmann; Conversion Drahm; Penalties Drahm 2. Bath Tries Malone 2, Delve. Conversions: Barkley 3; Penalties Barkley 5.

Worcester: N Le Roux; A Havili, T Lombard (D Rasmussen, h-t), S Whatling, T Delport; S Drahm, M Powell ( A Gomarsall, 62); A Windo (capt), C Fortey (G Hickie 66), C Horsman (T Taumoepeau H-T), P Murphy (T Collier, 66), C Gillies, K Horstmann (T Harding, 81), J Tuamoheloa, D Hickey.

Bath: M Stephenson; J Maddock, A Crockett, O Barkley, S Finau (A Higgins, 73); C Malone, N Walshe (A Williams, 80); D Barnes (Bell, 64), L Mears (P Dixon 69), D Bell (Lipman, 52), D Grewcock (P Short, 80), S Borthwick (capt), A Beattie, M Lipman (M Stevens, 41), G Delve.

Referee: S Davey (Sussex).

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