Richards seeks a roll-over day

Chris Rea says Leicester have the power to weaken Bath's mobility at Twickenham

Chris Rea
Saturday 27 April 1996 23:02

We have been this way before. Twice previously, in 1989 and 1994, have Bath and Leicester contested the Cup final and on both occasions Bath have triumphed. Taken solely on their form this season Bath are likely to do it again at Twickenham on Saturday.

They are capable of attacking on so many more fronts while Leicester, both on and off the field in recent weeks, have developed something of a siege mentality. Embattled on all sides they are at a loss to understand why.

They are aggrieved that their considerable achievements have not been properly recognised and that the outpourings of criticism from so many different quarters are entirely unjustified. Only last week Paul Turner, the Sale fly-half who has been around long enough to be taken seriously whenever he speaks his mind, was less than complimentary about Leicester's attitude and their failure to develop the game beyond the narrow confines of the scrums and line-outs, the rucks and the mauls.

The club, who a few short years ago were the centre of innovation and creative flair, have - temporarily one hopes - lost their way, if not yet their place, in the top two clubs in England. Admittedly, players such as Clive Woodward, Paul Dodge and Les Cusworth do not often land up in the same midfield at the one time, but it is a fact that while Leicester have been painstakingly building up the strength of their forwards they have been almost criminally neglectful of their backs. They are as a result unhealthily dependent upon John Liley's goal-kicking accuracy on those rare occasions when their muscular pack has met its match in the tight exchanges. And as they proved in the semi-final against London Irish, they are so wholly at odds with the running game that even to consider it on Saturday would be ruinously foolhardy.

Their transformation into a more recognisable form in the second half of that semi-final following stern words from the warlord himself, Dean Richards, broke London Irish just as it has done to so many opponents in recent times. That is the game they are comfortable with and it is the game they will surely play at Twickenham where there is more room for expansion but far fewer places to hide.

It was interesting to hear Turner's view after Sale's defeat at Welford Road that the pitch was much narrower than most first-class grounds, which might account for Leicester's limited ambition although their joie de vivre of yesteryear immediately explodes that theory. By narrowing their horizons so dramatically, however, Leicester have at least solved the recurring problem of how to get the best out of all 15 players at the same time. As they habitually use only 10 plus Liley as a goal-kicker, the difficulty is greatly reduced.

Bath, on the other hand, have not been firing on all cylinders in the last week or so and it has been showing. They have still been good enough to beat modest opposition, but whatever one thinks of Leicester's style, they are a wonderfully efficient unit capable of scenting and then systematically exposing the slightest vulnerability in the ranks of the opposition.

This season Bath have succeeded in moving their game on, taking their talents into areas that their rivals have not yet considered let alone reached. It is not, however, a simple case of Bath's ingenuity and enterprise against Leicester's blinkered organisation. When the two sides last met in a Twickenham final it was one of the most grimly dull contests in the history of the competition.

That Bath have the mobility and the skill to keep Leicester at full stretch is not in question. What is much less predictable is how much of a rope they will be given to hang Leicester. There have been times recently when their scrummage has looked far from secure. Given the strength of the Leicester tight five, the Tigers have every right to believe that whatever Gloucester and Saracens can do, they can do to very much greater effect. Similarly in the line-out the two locks, Martin Johnson and Matt Poole, have been cussedly difficult beacons to snuff out although one has lost count of the times that Nigel Redman and Martin Haag have overcome seemingly insuperable physical odds to finish the day ahead, if not in quantity of possession then at least in quality.

When Tony Russ was Leicester's director of rugby he deplored the omission of Neil Back from the England side and then the mishandling of the flanker when he was eventually selected. But this season Leicester have themselves been guilty of the same misuse and Back's game has suffered as a consequence. If he is more physically robust he is much less effective as a creative link in the chain of continuity. The result is a net loss to club and country.

Andy Robinson, on the other hand, has had a cracking season, combining the positive and the destructive in equal measure and with equal facility. There are few more priceless pictures of injured innocence than Robinson on the wrong side of the offside line. Unless, of course, you count Dean Richards.

Richards remains the biggest single influence on the day. His ability to control the pace of the game lies at the heart of Leicester's strategy. With Andy Nicol having rediscovered his zest for the game and renewed confidence oozing through Mike Catt, Bath are enviably well equipped behind the scrum. The match-winning potential of Bath's backs poses the most serious threat to Leicester and at the same time offers the best prospect of rich entertainment.

But beauty, as we know, is in the eye of the beholder and to the one- eyed partisans of Leicester nothing is more beautiful than a rolling maul, a grinding scrummage or the reassuring presence of Richards, their incomparable No 8. But Bath, unbeaten in their previous nine finals, are in sight of their perfect number 10.

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