Thursday, 1 December 2011

Teeth-grindingly inept... but Bath Rugby take criticism on the chin

Some analysis of Bath Rugby's no-show against Worcester Warriors in the Aviva Premiership, plus a look forward to the showdown with Sale Sharks on Saturday...

If there is to be a soupcon of solace taken from such a teeth-grindingly inept performance, it is that Bath Rugby took the flak squarely on the chin.

A quiet, shell-shocked Sir Ian McGeechan, the club’s director of rugby, admitted his side had “no excuses” after the 16-7 loss. Players muttered darkly of a “bleak” changing room and a sense of “humiliation”.

Clearly, nothing was to be swept under the carpet. And a good job, too.

Play like this in Dublin in two weeks’ time against a Leinster side studded with Ireland internationals and Bath will be destroyed. Twenty points? Thirty points? The margin really does not bear thinking about.

Perversely, good may come from a performance that provoked a curious blend of incredulity, frustration and bile from Bath fans at Sixways, on Twitter and on fans’ forums. This may have been the jolt that Bath needed to rouse them from a state of under-performing mediocrity.

Too often in the past month – against Harlequins, Glasgow and now Worcester – Bath have delivered performances that have lacked cohesion and bite. Friday night’s showing took the biscuit.

It is to Bath’s credit that they did not reach for the excuses digest, even when they had an ample stock to select from. An injury crisis at hooker, coupled with a neck injury to lock Dave Attwood, resulted in them having four props on the field at one point. And while All Black World Cup-winner Stephen Donald had a hugely disappointing game, particularly after his sensational debut a week earlier, any sensible analysis of Friday’s failings needs to consider that he is still new to both Bath and the English game. To expect the back-line to sing in just the fly-half’s second start is a tall order.

Still, Bath’s backs did not just fail to sing, they choked. Other than having a decoy runner who would plod in front of the first receiver, Bath looked bereft of ideas.

Bereft was a word that sprang to mind on the final whistle, too. The look on captain Stuart Hooper’s face said it all. Standing on the touchline with his hands on his hips, a strobe machine would have struggled to make him blink. The lock looked gobsmacked, unable to comprehend the myriad failings he had just witnessed.

In mitigation, Bath’s clash with Worcester took place just five days after a gruelling Heineken Cup scrap with Montpellier. But this was Bath without guile, without flair and without collective purpose.

They could not hold on to the ball in the first half, gave away too many penalties, and the advantage line looked like a distant country.

“We weren’t near the intensity we had the week before and we have to look at that,” said McGeechan. “It’s no good being up one week and down the next. We were pretty average on Friday.

“We’ve no excuses. These things have to be far better than they were and we need to look hard at ourselves.

“Any defeat is disappointing but it’s when we don’t do justice to ourselves that I find it quite hard to accept.”

There were positive contributions amid the dark Midlands night. Academy wing Olly Woodburn continued to show the older hands how it is done, Francois Louw put in the hard yards when he was not scrapping with his backrow adversary Sam Betty, while Charlie Beech was Bath’s stand-out front rower, even when he was pushed back to the second row when Attwood’s suspected neck injury necessitated a drastic shuffling of the pack.

Both sides lacked penetration for most of the first half but it was the intelligent game management of Worcester half backs Shaun Perry and Joe Carlisle that gave the Warriors the edge.

Carlisle kicked the hosts into the lead in the tenth minute. The tone for the evening was set when Donald missed two opportunities in quick succession to level the scores.

With just ten seconds of the half remaining, a neat pop pass by Carlisle released Miles Benjamin who was on the burst. Mark Lilley could not cling on to the winger’s shirt and Benjamin rounded Bath full-back Nick Abendanon with ease to score the converted try that was nothing less than the Warriors deserved.

Bath upped the tempo a touch in the second half and had chances, most notably when Louw burst through midfield, but the final pass was never close to being accurate enough.

Carlisle extended Worcester’s lead midway through the second period with a simple penalty but a shaft of hope for Bath was provided by a well-worked driven maul that culminated in the television match official awarding a try to the hard-grafting Beech. Replacement Olly Barkley struck the conversion beautifully. Suddenly, and almost unaccountably, Bath were within a converted score of poaching the match.

But it was not to be – and such an eventuality would have been unjust on Worcester. The visitors tried to run the ball from deep inside their own 22 and after much huffing and puffing the ploy hideously backfired. A pass by Barkley was intercepted and any hope of Bath heading back south with a losing bonus point was snuffed out when former England fly-half Andy Goode, on as a replacement, slotted a drop goal.

“No one was happy and the players were bitterly disappointed in the changing room afterwards,” said forwards coach Martin Haag after the dust had settled. “Perhaps that disappointment doesn’t show sometimes but I can assure you they were feeling it.”

The task for Haag and the rest of the Bath coaching team is to transmute that disappointment into the sporting gold dust of burning motivation. For that, they need only put the tape of Friday’s no-show on replay.

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