Rugby Union: Offence to defence all part of picture: Alan Watkins on a day of gloomy frustration but one also lightened by two champion tries

Alan Watkins
Sunday 08 May 1994 23:02

SHORTLY afterwards, a distinguished Australian journalist said to me that the match summarised everything that was wrong with English rugby. From this point of view it was a veritable manual of instruction. We saw it all: handling errors; what are politely referred as 'fracas' (usually about 50 yards from the ball); collapsed scrums; unexplained, sometimes inexplicable, refereeing decisions; penalties galore, victory going to the side that possessed the more reliable kicker on the day.

We were denied only sustained exhibitions of the rolling or driving maul, from two sides who fancy themselves as masters of this ploy. No doubt Bath and Leicester had devised means of frustrating the other's intentions in this aspect of the game. However, to make us feel more at home, the match was played in weather that was not quite drizzle, though not quite rain either, but something in between.

At the press conference afterwards, John Hall, the Bath captain, said that the ball was 'very slippery out there'. His Leicester equivalent, Dean Richards, said that the worst part of the day was waking up in the morning to find it was raining. Maybe the state of the ball derived from the length of the Twickenham grass, which has always struck me as excessive and detrimental to rugby at its best. Running over it must sometimes be like trying to pedal a bicycle through wet sand.

Still, there is a limit to the blame that can be attached to the conditions. You have only to think of Wales's exhibition against Scotland in the January rain and mud of Cardiff. There was little mud at Twickenham, certainly nothing comparable with the amount flying around at the Bath Rec a few Saturdays ago, when the match produced a similar result but, in a curious way, a more enthralling contest.

Hall and the other players were confident that they would beat Leicester in the cup irrespective of the conditions. So they duly did: not perhaps in fine style, but certainly in Bath style. Stuart Barnes had a virtually faultless afternoon. The forwards did everything that could have been expected of them.

When David Hilton, the loose- head prop, seemed to be coming under pressure from Darren Garforth, they simply released the ball quickly. Andy Reed, however, did considerably more than might have been expected of him. He appeared to be involved somewhere in every bout of fisticuffs, but lived a charmed life as far as the referee, Ed Morrison, was concerned.

And Bath did, after all, score two excellent tries to Leicester's none. Tony Swift's was genuinely affecting. As he said afterwards, he would have liked the chance to score some similar tries for England. He was completely justified in saying this.

Nor is Swift the only Bath player to have been discarded or disregarded in recent years. There have been Barnes, Jonathan Callard, Graham Dawe, Hall, Richard Hill, Nigel Redman (until this season) and Andy Robinson - every bit as much a victim of rugby sizeism as Neil Back, who, for him, had a subdued game.

No wonder that Bath tend to take offence so readily. No wonder they ask so insistently: 'Why does nobody love us outside Bath?' With the departure for the England team of Jack Rowell (himself a prickly character) they may

become less defensive, for Rowell may well find qualities in some of them which Geoff Cooke failed to appreciate.

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