The path to beating Bath

Alex Spink talks to past heroes who have revelled in a cup giant- killing
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The Independent Online
YOU know what they say about cup ties: the form book can be thrown out of the window. Gloucester, who play at Bath in Saturday's Pilkington semi- final, would dearly love to believe it. But they can't.

It is not that Gloucester question their own credentials, simply that they acknowledge the enormity of their task. Bath have won 9 of the last 12 cup finals and suffered just three defeats in the competition - one at home - dating back to 1984.

Over the same period Gloucester have appeared in one final and, on reflection, probably wish they had not bothered because Bath thrashed them 48-6. They are at present fighting a battle against relegation from a First Division which Bath lead, courtesy of 11 wins from 12 games.

It is little wonder that the Gloucester coach and former England scrum- half Richard Hill, who played in eight of Bath's cup-winning teams, fancies his former club's chances, although it would be wide of the mark to say he is without hope.

During his years of cup glory at the Recreation Ground Hill also played in each of those three defeats - against Moseley in the 1988 quarter-finals, Leicester in the third round three years later and to Waterloo at the same stage in 1993 - and has sifting through those memories with a fine toothcomb.

"I recall the Waterloo game in particular," he said "Stuart Barnes and Ben Clarke both chose to play for the Barbarians and rather than insist they played for us we released them because we thought we would win anyway. Complacency creeps up on you. You cannot detect it beforehand. But you can tell normally within the first five minutes of a match if it's going to go horribly wrong. If you are not in the right frame of mind when the game starts it's very difficult to drag yourself out of it."

This was apparent in the first of Bath's cup defeats at the start of the 1983-84 campaign when a record sequence of 22 cup matches unbeaten was ended by Moseley at The Reddings, where Peter Shillingford's early pushover try was enough to put out the holders 4-3. "The previous season they had beaten us by 30 points and obviously thought it would be a cakewalk," said Shillingford, now captain of Worcester. "But they had an off-day and we played to our full potential. We got in their faces, forcing them to make mistakes. I got the early try and they got increasingly frustrated. They used three goalkickers, missed six out of seven penalty kicks and four dropped goals."

It was a similar scenario at Blundellsands where Paul Grayson, now England fly-half, kicked Waterloo to a 9-8 victory in what constitutes the competition's biggest upset. "We played beyond ourselves and our fitness levels and I remember being so physically and mentally exhausted afterwards that I threw up," Grayson said. "But had Bath not been complacent we would not have been in the game. Mental slackness is the only way great teams become unstuck. We never thought we could beat them."

Sandwiched between those two giant-killing acts was the 12-0 win by Leicester in the West Country. Bath had not lost at home in the competition in eight years (and have not since) and Leicester were severely weakened by the absence of Rory Underwood, Barry Evans, Neil Back and Matt Poole. "Frankly, we expected to be steamrollered," recalled John Liley, who kicked two penalty goals and converted Brian Smith's virtuoso try. "But we each gave 110 per cent to compensate for the players missing and I think we wanted it more."

Liley reckons that victory on that day removed Leicester's fear of visiting Bath thereafter. Indeed the Tigers won in the league at the Rec this season. The question now is whether Gloucester can conquer their own doubts. Certainly, the club will not fail for want of trying. Hill has employed a psychologist, Jack Lamport-Mitchell, to prepare the side for Saturday's mind warfare. "Jack will see each of the players individually and then conduct a 40-minute team talk on the day of the match," Hill said. "The aim is to calm the players down and get them focused on positive things.

"What we have in our favour is that every side in the country will want to see Bath beaten. Moseley and Waterloo were lifted by that nationwide support.My hope is that we can draw similar inspiration."