Thursday, 29 January 2009

Bath neither home nor dry

As Bath’s players held their mud-smeared arms aloft and extended soggy embraces to one another following the lowest-scoring match in Heineken Cup history, it was difficult to know precisely what they were celebrating.
Perhaps it was because the draw with Toulouse was enough to ensure they finished top of Pool 5. Perhaps it was because, following Matt Stevens’ admission of drug-taking and the subsequent media attention, they were relieved to have got through a tough week muddied but unbowed. Or perhaps, given the atrocious – and almost unplayable – conditions caused by the hailstorm and rain that lashed The Rec, they were relieved not to have drowned.
But whatever they were celebrating on Sunday, the team had failed to secure that all-important home fixture at the first knock-out stage.
History and statistics show that home advantage in the cup’s quarter-finals significantly shorten the odds on a side reaching the final four. But Bath will take heart from the fact that they defeated Leicester – whom they have once again drawn in the quarters – at the same stage of the competition in 2006.
The pitch may have been watery, but it was not a watery grave for either team. Wasps’ defeat in Castres earlier in the afternoon had ensured that both Bath and Toulouse would qualify. This, along with the weather, took some of the fizz out of the encounter for the crowd. Rather than being an all-or-nothing contest, the match was reduced to being all about whether either side could snatch a win and – with it – a home quarter-final.
Oddly, head coach Meehan said after the game that he had not informed his players of results elsewhere in the competition before they ran out on to The Rec.
That Meehan is among the best coaches in Europe is not open to doubt, but there’s a strong case for arguing this was a mistake.
Had his players known that they would qualify for an away quarter-final regardless of whether they lost or drew, but that only victory would be enough for a home match, then they would surely have chanced their arm with a drop goal attempt in the dying seconds as the Bath pack set up camp in the Toulouse 22.
The conditions for drop goal kicking were indeed appalling, as fly-half Butch James and inside centre Shaun Berne had shown in the first-half with two wayward attempts.
But if such an effort in the dying moments had gone over, then Bath would have been at home in the next round. If it had come up short or gone wide, then the worse that could have happened is that Toulouse would have galloped the length of the pitch and scored, leaving Bath the prospect of an away quarter-final.
Which is what they’ve got anyway...

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