Test of strength for Bath

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The Independent Online
It is galling for Bath that, at the moment of another triumph - their sixth league title in Courage's nine seasons, their 15th trophy from the 21 available since 1984 - they should be assailed with the doubts of others about the future of this exalted rugby institution.

To draw 38-38 with Sale on a golden day such as presents the Georgian city at its very finest was a surreal way in which to relieve Leicester of the championship, but the realism of professionalism has it that Bath are threatened with being rent asunder by the pecuniary depredations of rugby's nouveaux riches.

An invitation arrived in the post on Saturday. "The time has come..." its cover portentously stated, the message continuing inside "...for a new era in rugby union." It was from Richmond, trailing "a milestone announcement in the club's history" at the Cafe Royal in London next Tuesday. This is taken to refer to the acquisition of Ben Clarke and possibly also Mike Catt from Bath. Two current England internationals.

The champions are more or less resigned to Clarke relegating himself to the Second Division for a fabulous amount, but are more hopeful that Catt will not follow the same well-heeled but downward path. That others - Nigel Redman to Moseley, maybe - go elsewhere for the money is also possible.

But it has to be said that Clarke has been scarcely missed during an injury absence which will extend to this Saturday's cup final against Leicester and, anyway, Bath have more than enough other outstanding players in a squad of great depth to compensate. Eric Peters, for instance, has been superlative in Clarke's place.

Bath have something else that even the grandiose sums bandied about in rugby union's new professionalism can only partly buy. It is the elixir of constant regeneration and there is no reason whatever - quite the contrary, in fact - to suppose it will not sustain them into next season just as it has into each of the past dozen or so.

Already Brian Ashton has been appointed full-time head coach, but of equal or greater significance, though Bath have been careful not to announce anything prematurely, is that half the squad are already signed up. Those who do not add their names to this lengthening list will imperil not only their representative prospects but also their earning power.

And, anyway, this whole business about the players who might be leaving Bath has obscured the alternative that for every departure there will be an arrival keen to partake of rugby played as most of us would like to see it. Bath are not only England's champion club and about to contest the cup final, but they have also accomplished what they have in a grand manner.

This title climax at the Rec was a case in point, albeit a bizarre example of Bath at their best and worst. Whatever befell Leicester against Harlequins was becoming irrelevant while Bath amassed five tries and 32 points in a first half of dazzling virtuosity. Every one of the tries scored by Nicol, Catt, Sleightholme, Lumsden and the replacement Fraser Waters was a product of trademark Bath rugby in which forwards just as much as backs contribute as creative attackers.

That Sale also scored two tries seemed incidental but this contrary evidence gave an inkling of what was to come. Even while Bath appeared to be in absolute control they were defensively vulnerable whenever Sale gained their occasional territorial foothold and the possession to go with it, as Joss Baxendell and Dylan O'Grady proved.

In the second half, Sale had more of both possession and territory, Bath's tackling declined along with their composure, and in the end the champions were grateful for their draw. While Bath stayed stuck on five tries, Sale, aroused by an oath-strewn half-time pep-talk, added three: by Neil Ashurst, Baxendell and finally Chris Yates.

The tirade had been delivered by Paul Turner. "There was a panicking Bath side there at the end," the Sale coach said, and he had done most to induce the panic after replacing Jim Mallinder. The Welsh outside-half ordered the reluctant Rob Liley to full-back and proceeded to orchestrate an astounding fightback, a magician pulling one rabbit after another out of his hat.

Bath were so rattled that they had to turn to Jonathan Callard to penalty- kick them to safety. The first half was a distant memory by the time Yates scored the match's 10th and last try two minutes into stoppage time and Liley, about five minutes after brother John had missed his decisive penalty for Leicester, landed the equalising conversion.

News of Leicester's defeat by Harlequins had already been gleefully announced and in the circumstances the Bath players did not know whether to be relieved or rapturous when Phil de Glanville, their injured captain, received the trophy from Bill Bishop, president of the Rugby Football Union. "Obviously it was not a perfect ending," John Hall, Bath's director of rugby, muttered.

It has been Hall's lot to have to conduct the contractual negotiations which seem as if they have been going on for ever. After each game he is asked how they are going and each time he says the same, expressing his confidence that the vast majority will remain Bathonians next season.

We will soon find out, but for now Hall's more immediate concern is his players' physical condition for the impending visit to Twickenham. De Glanville will be fit, so will Andy Nicol despite his retirement from Saturday's match. Clarke's ankle injury has next to no chance of recovery in time, and the recurrence of Jeremy Guscott's thigh injury makes him almost as doubtful. So yet again Bath will have to plumb their depth.

Bath: Tries Nicol, Catt, Sleightholme, Lumsden, Waters; Conversions Callard 2; Penalties Callard 3. Sale: Tries Baxendell 2, O'Grady, Ashurst, Yates; Conversions Liley 2; Penalties Liley 3.

Bath: J Callard; J Sleightholme, J Guscott (F Waters, 34), A Adebayo, A Lumsden; M Catt, A Nicol (C Harrison, h-t); K Yates, G French, J Mallett (D Crompton, 24-29), M Haag, N Redman, S Ojomoh, E Peters, A Robinson (capt).

Sale: J Mallinder (capt, P Turner, 40); D Rees, J Baxendell, G Higginbotham, C Yates ;R Liley, C Saverimutto (M Warr, 24-33); P Smith, L Hewson, A Smith, J Fowler, D Erskine, D O'Grady, N Ashurst, A Morris.

Referee: B Campsall (Halifax).