The unforgivable, unforgettable grand finale

BATH............................................................. 16 Try Penalty try Conversion Callard Penalties Callard 2 Drop goal Catt; LEICESTER.....................................................15 Tries Malone, Poole Conversion Liley Penalty Liley

STEVE BALE

It doesn't have to be like this, it really doesn't, but somehow it always is when Bath and Leicester come together on a grand stage. The Silver Jubilee cup final had been utterly forgettable until it was drawing its dying breath yet now no one will ever forget it for its controversial finish, the sourness of its aftermath, and an unforgivably wanton act by Neil Back.

Bath triumphed, if that is not too grandiose a term, for the 10th time in their 10 finals in 13 seasons by once more dredging their unfathomable depths as only Bath can do - even, or especially, when the likes of Jeremy Guscott and Ben Clarke are absentees. The decisive end product was a penalty try, like the one against Oxford in the University match, conceded by Leicester after 79min 17sec for persistent offending which Jonathan Callard converted to win the match by a point.

Never have losers looked more crushed. At the final whistle the World Cup referee, Steve Lander, was pushed to the ground by Back - inadvertantly, so the Leicester flanker insisted to general incredulity - and though the Tigers subsequently did the decent thing by masking their intense irritation, they were then subject to a hyperbolic assault on their rugby by the Bath manager, John Hall.

"It would have been a disaster if Leicester had won, because to win all that ball and not do anything with it was criminal," he said after doing a Jack Rowell by removing himself to the changing-room for the excruciating conclusion. When Hall added: "We just can't have people spoiling the game like that", he meant both the particular of this game's culmination and the general of Leicester's contribution to it.

With which it is scarcely surprising that Dean Richards, the Leicester captain, should have disagreed, though he did concede that Lander had warned both before the match and during the fateful climactic exchanges that he would come down heavily on the persistent killing of the ball. Of this, as Hall partially put it, "they are the masters".

Richards's defence of his side's defence - four killed rucks, one after another - was to the effect that as Bath were not about to breach it no try would have been scored. "It was a bit of an amazing decision," he contended. "At the time our defence was very strong and it didn't look to me as if they were going to go over at all."

There again, it was only by persistent offence that the defence held in the first place and anyway Richards said he would rather have expected yellow cards, so he could not be said to be a sinner who repented. What with the defence additionally having to extend to arguing afterwards on behalf of the indefensible Back, no wonder Richards regarded this as one of the nadirs of his illustrious career.

Bath achieved their fourth Double in seven years before 75,000 who packed Twickenham in world-record numbers for a humble club fixture, if a Pilkington final can be so described. The champions as ever did their best with limited means to be creative but were so constrained by Leicester's rigid control of the set phases that their ambition went mostly unrequited.

Instead, it was a case of Leicester's doing what they invariably do by uninterruptedly winning their own ball and using it to maul or scrummage their way forward. Either way, it tends to occur at walking pace. Though it is idle to expect the Tigers to do other than play to their considerable strength it is also valid to wonder at a strategy that precludes so much of the possession being thereafter released to runners-in of the calibre of Rory Underwood and Steve Hackney.

The first Leicester try began characteristically with a maul but continued exceptionally with the acceleration given it by a devastating burst by the prop Darren Garforth. This so committed the Bath defence that when the ball - rapidly, for once - came back Niall Malone was unmarked when he went through a gap as wide as the gap between the Twickenham posts.

This was a tantalising early glimpse of the possible but Leicester were unable to build by the usual means of John Liley's boot and it was not until the 75th minute that a foul-up between Bath's Graham Dawe and Nigel Redman at a defensive line-out enabled Matthew Poole to pluck the wayward throw and flop over for Leicester's second try.

It is at such crisis moments that Bath reveal their inner selves. "These guys are not only special players but special men," Brian Ashton, their coach, eulogised. Liley missed the conversion as, critically, he had four of five penalty kicks and at six points adrift Bath were about to prove they were still within reach.

Ian Smith, the Leicester coach, gallantly exonerated Liley - and anyway Callard also missed three from six, defrayed by the impeccable Mike Catt's drop goal - and instead blamed the entire team. "We had clear-cut opportunities throughout the game," he said. "As has been our wont this season, when those opportunities presented themselves we didn't take them."

As for Back, he explained the contretemps with Lander by saying he thought it was Andy Robinson he was shoving, a story demonstrated as implausible by TV evidence even if we can be sure his opposite number was the last person he wanted to greet at that baleful point before Back gracelessly forwent the vexation of collecting his loser's medal.

On the other hand, whether it was the imagined Robinson or the all-too- real Lander it reflects abysmally on Back, who has apologised but would be in the deepest trouble - for laying hands on a referee, no less - if Lander had not magnanimously accepted the mistaken identity story and decided to let the matter rest, unlike the 1996 cup final, in peace. The authorities, though, may take a sterner view.

Bath: J Callard; J Sleightholme, P de Glanville (capt), A Adebayo, A Lumsden; M Catt, A Nicol; D Hilton, G Dawe, J Mallett, M Haag, N Redman, S Ojomoh, E Peters, A Robinson.

Leicester: J Liley; S Hackney, S Potter, R Robinson, R Underwood; N Malone, A Kardooni; G Rowntree, R Cockerill, D Garforth, M Johnson, M Poole, J Wells, D Richards (capt), N Back.

Referee: S Lander (Irby, Wirral).

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