NOTHING has so accurately summarised this grim season than the ending of it. To its very last gasp it has been bedevilled by controversy and unpleasantness. It certainly provided a final five minutes unrivalled in Pilkington Cup history although so much of what had preceded it was depressingly mediocre.
With Leicester leading 15-10 and two minutes remaining, Bath launched a series of frantic attacks close to the Leicester line. Thrice they were stopped illegally and on the fourth occasion as Mike Catt drove forward the referee, Steve Lander, his patience at an end, blew his whistle and signalled a penalty try just as Tony Spreadbury had on the same ground at the Varsity Match. Afterwards it emerged that Lander had warned Dean Richards, the Leicester captain, that if there was another infringement he would award a penalty try. Jon Callard kicked the goal and Bath had the points they needed to secure their 10th Cup victory in 10 appearances in the final. Shortly afterwards, the final whistle blew and, as the crowd rushed forward and enveloped the players, Neil Back appeared to push the referee who fell to the ground.
The controversy which attended Spreadbury's decision will assuredly follow Lander's ruling, but he will get the support of all who are fed up with the cynical abuse of the laws in such circumstances. Back, for his part, will find little sympathy for his petulance even though it was later reported that he had confused the referee for Andy Robinson, the Bath flanker, and had apologised to Lander for this case of mistaken identity. That explanation was accepted by Lander, who said: "As the game ended, me and the player accidentally collided. I have no problem and there will be no further action on my part. I gave the penalty try after two audible warnings."
Back said it was "an accidental push. I had no idea I was banging into the referee. I thought it was Andy Robinson. I've apologised to Steve, though I believe he made a very odd decision. We felt deprived of a victory we thought we had earned".
Richards, who was equally upset, said: "I can't understand why he gave the penalty try. We're all devastated in the dressing room. He confirmed to me it was for persistently infringing, but you can argue it was good defence that was holding Bath up."
Inevitably, Bath applauded the penalty try. "It was a very brave decision but it was the right one," said their captain, Phil de Glanville, while John Hall, Bath's director of rugby, claimed: "They're the masters of killing the ball. I think it would have been a disaster if Leicester had won. To win all that ball and not do anything with it is criminal."
That view, though, elicited a vehement response from Leicester's hooker, Richard Cockerill, who said: "I can't understand what he was thinking about. The referee won them the game, it's as simple as that." Steve Griffiths, the Rugby Football Union's referees' development officer, also accepted Back's explanation, but the television evidence is clear enough. It is hard to see how the incident can be ignored by the RFU whose recent record on disciplinary matters has been shamefully over-indulgent.
For long periods of the game, Bath were being ground down by Leicester's remorseless frontal assault. They were slower into the tackle and ineffective when eventually they got there. Martin Johnson was unassailable at the front of the line-out, and in the scrummage Leicester's tight five were for long periods irresistible. Not only that, but Darren Garforth, the tight-head prop, was playing the game of his life, setting up Leicester's first try for Niall Malone and later in the first half hitting Robinson amidships with a venomous tackle.
Leicester, utterly predictable but undeniably effective, had held the game in their unyielding grip for most of the first half. The best of their other numerous scoring opportunities came when Steve Hackney flew down the Leicester right. But instead of trusting to his own blazing pace, he shipped the ball on to John Liley who was devoured by the Bath cover. Bath, meanwhile, had to exist on emergency rations, but Liley's goalkicking was even more wayward on the day than Callard's. He missed four penalty kicks and the conversion of Matt Poole's late try.
Catt, who played with growing confidence and increasing influence, then broke with deadly speed down the left and sent a kick spiralling towards the Leicester line for Adedayo Adebayo to chase. The perverse bounce confounded Liley and, cruelly, Adebayo. Even so, by half-time Bath were ahead. Standing behind a ruck in front of the Leicester posts, Catt's drop kick soared over the bar.
The pattern which had so dominated the first half was quickly established in the second,and once again the wear and tear of the season seemed to be taking its toll of the Bath players.
Liley struck his first penalty goal four minutes into the half to restore Leicester's lead and Jon Sleightholme's nail varnish was all that kept Hackney glued to his fingertips a yard from the line. De Glanville then careered downfield and, with no support outside him, kicked up to the Leicester line. But the Tigers were soon back in the Bath 22, and from Back's well-judged kick they found themselves a yard from the goalline. Graham Dawe, whose throwing in had been a major source of irritation to his own forwards all afternoon, propelled the ball straight to Poole who dived over for the try. Liley missed the conversion but with Bath now in what appeared to be in terminal exhaustion it would surely be enough to settle the match.
But summoning what was left of their strength, Bath found themselves within striking distance and the adrenalin flowed again. They produced quick ball and gained valuable yardage. Leicester killed the ball three times and then Lander brought the season to its controversial and unforgettable conclusion.
Bath: J Callard; A Lumsden, P de Glanville (capt), A Adebayo, J Sleightholme; M Catt, A Nicol; D Hilton, G Dawe, J Mallett, M Haag, N Redman, A Robinson, S Ojomoh, E Peters.
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, N Back, D Richards (capt).
Referee: S Lander (Liverpool).