Wasps kick entertainment into touch

RUGBY UNION: Even England's best are blighted as pressure for league points puts paid to expansive play
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Patently there is something seriously amiss with English club rugby when week by week, with increasing predictability matched by a deadly monotony, the best when they come together produce the worst. Wasps v Bath, third v first, was a shocker but why should we have expected any different?

It is a dismal predicament when the quest for two points and its attendant anxiety so outweigh other, less pragmatic considerations. Only the other week, Tony Russ of Leicester confessed after Bath had won at Welford Road that victory playing badly would always be preferable to defeat playing well and I dare say there is not a coach in England who would not honestly say the same.

On this reckoning Bath, by beating Wasps 15-6, derived some satisfaction - modest and grim though it was - from events at Sudbury. But for Wasps the unlikely fact that, but for a desperate kicking display by Rob Andrew of all people, they would very likely have won was of no consolation.

Indeed more desperate even than Andrew's six penalty misses out of seven and three missed drop-shots from four is the apparently conscious decision of the Wasps players to forsake their running game in favour of a dire diet of punting - utter stodge - which deserves neither credit nor success.

This is made more baffling by the fairly recent assertion of Rob Smith, the Wasps coach, that the wide game they were then enthusiastically espousing was the right way to beat the Baths and Leicesters just as much as lesser opposition.

As for the rest of the world, on this evidence we might as well forget it. "Very encouraging... from a New Zealand point of view," was the cryptic judgement of Steve Tew, the new chief executive of the Canterbury Rugby Union, who had imagined he had come half-way round the globe to see the best English rugby had to offer. The frightening reality is that indeed he had.

We can take it that if his players played like that it would more than his job was worth. "If you had 30,000 people paying eight quid each to watch that, how many would come back the next week?" Tew mused. "You can't afford that if you are in the entertainment business."

But are we in the entertainment business? The evidence of this season suggests not. Or, if this was entertainment, it was for masochists. Jonathan Callard and Andrew exchanged early penalties but thereafter did not locate the target until Andrew gave Wasps the lead with his drop goal and Callard converted the second of the tries by Adedayo Adebayo with which Bath then seized the day.

Andrew persistently had kicks of various types charged down and eventually injury was added to indignity when he collided with Ben Clarke after a ferocious tackle by Andy Robinson in the build-up to the second try, and was led away to have five stitches in his forehead and eight in his mouth.

This is not what Newcastle United Sporting Club are paying a large sum of money for and it is surely time their new director of rugby development devoted his energies exclusively to spending Sir John Hall's millions. Getting from Newcastle to north London three times a week will be a luxury and a distraction as long as it continues, and more especially as long as Newcastle continue as they now are: candidates not for the First but for the Third Division.

They could become the first rugby club to spend their way out of trouble, but no amount of money can buy the esprit de corps that has carried Bath for so many years through so many hard times. Saturday's match was a classic of its kind, almost as if protracted defence were a necessary precondition of the devastating attacking riposte that followed.

Afterwards John Hall (no relation), the Bath manager, could afford the indulgence of describing much of his team's play as "totally inept", though they would be well advised to note the threat explicit in his remarks that others would follow Victor Ubogu out of the side if they continued to "operate in the comfort zone".

Ubogu is an interesting and rather puzzling figure in the Bath context, because he so obviously does not fit into the collective framework which is a greater strength than any of the club's exceptional individual talents. For an England player to be dropped is striking enough, but for those who dropped him to explain that he is not up to it amounts to a public humiliation.

"Vic knows the score," Hall said. "He isn't as fit as he should be. We want to play a game that means the ball is in play for 30-plus minutes and our target is to have it in play for 40 minutes. We believe Vic at the moment is not capable of operating at that level. Having said that, when Victor Ubogu is at the top of his game he is probably our best prop."

Only "probably"? As the game turned out, Ubogu may feel it was a good one to miss, with Ed Morrison's pedantic refereeing a perfect accompaniment to persistently discordant rugby. Rob Smith's theory is that referees, under instruction from on high, are picking up on the wrong offences and his case for stricter policing of offside is unarguable, if only because his own team spent so much of Saturday's game with impunity in exactly that position.

"The interpretation of the laws is making teams very reluctant to play with the ball," Smith said. "I really do believe that with a bit more freedom both these teams would be more willing to express themselves but as things stand it is actually a disadvantage to move the ball." Coming from an apostle of attacking rugby, this a counsel of despair.

Wasps: Penalty Andrew; Drop goal Andrew. Bath: Tries Adebayo 2; Conversion Callard; Penalty Callard.

Wasps: J Ufton; P Hopley, D Hopley, A James (A Gomarsall, 64), S Roiser; R Andrew (A James, 80), S Bates; N Popplewell, K Dunn, I Dunston, M Greenwood, D Ryan (capt), L Dallaglio, P Scrivener, M White.

Bath: J Callard; A Lumsden, P de Glanville (capt), J Guscott, A Adebayo; M Catt, A Nicol; K Yates, G Dawe, D Hilton, M Haag, N Redman, S Ojomoh, B Clarke, A Robinson.

Referee: E Morrison (Bristol).