3 years ago
16 May 2010, 10:44am
It was a great adventure, one of the most remarkable turnarounds of any season anywhere, but after dreams of another grand day out at Twickenham, this Guinness Premiership semi-final at Welford Road was a rude awakening for Bath Rugby.
For an hour they stood toe-to-toe with the Tigers pack, denying the home team the merest sniff of a try-scoring chance. Olly Barkley's penalty kicks put Bath 6-nil ahead at the end of the first quarter but a 'dogfight' was never going to give Bath the best chance of winning and when the Tigers settled for a ten-man tactics and penalty kicks, the visitors found it impossible to open up into their renowned off-loading game,
Instead the set-piece came under increasing pressure and Leicester assumed command, as Head Coach Steve Meehan acknowledged: "We found it difficult to get out of their half and when we did get hold of the ball we did show a lack of patience, looking for off-loads that weren't on.
You know you've got to win your set piece to get yourself on the front foot and to put the opposition under pressure. But we weren't controlling things and that made life difficult. In the first half we did have some opportunities but in the second half we just didn't get into it."
Meehan had no quibbles however with the application: "You can't question the effort they can be very proud of that and at times the defence was outstanding, terrific. As a performance, it was much more applied, more honest, than when we were here last. They can all look themselves in the mirror."
The Tigers' line-up saw the return of England players Toby Flood, Louis Deacon and Jordan Crane and, of course, it was Lewis Moody's farewell to Welford Road before joining the ranks of the blue, black and white after England's summer tour. There was a huge ovation from the crowd of 21,575 as the England captain ran out alone ahead of his teammates.
Bath confined themselves to one change Matt Carraro for Shontayne Hape at outside centre.
Having drawn 20-20 at the Rec back in September Leicester had won 43-20 in the return league fixture last month and 12 points separated the sides as first and fourth place finishers respectively.
In a frantic first five minutes, Bath caught the home side on the hop. Gifted an attacking line-out when Leicester took the ball back into the 22 before kicking clear, Butch James first slid a teasing kick through for Nick Abendanon and came agonisingly close to scoring from two charge-downs.
Leicester only just scrambled the ball away and battled their way to the Bath 22 only to turn the ball over, sparking a quicksilver counter-attack which saw Lee Mears break away with Luke Watson in support but the last offload went to ground.
The Tigers roared back on to the attack but the Bath defence was equal to everything being thrown at them and won a penalty deep in their 22. A series of deft offloads between Mears, Watson, Michael Claassens, Julian Salvi and Andy Beattie then forced the home defence in to conceding a penalty at the breakdown and Olly Barkley kicked the 11th minute penalty.
Another fine counter-ruck turnover deep in Bath territory saw David Flatman and Matt Banahan come away with the ball. Barkley soon had another chance but was wide from 38 metres out on the left.
The nearest Bath came to scoring a try was when James released Banahan through the traffic and he spilled the ball in the tackle on the line. The chance had come from a scrum when Flatman and Co forced the Leicester front row to go to ground. With no advantage accruing, Barkley made no mistake from the left.
Almost immediately however Toby Flood pulled back three points after Bath were caught offside. Flood pinned Bath back in the corner by the big screen, setting up a series of pick-and-drives but the defence performed heroics to hold the line and then win a scrum.
A great running catch by Abendanon reminded the packed Welford Road stands of the threat he posed but the Tigers pulled level on 36 minutes with a controversial score. The assistant referees could not say with any certainty that Flood's penalty kick had gone inside the post but, when called into action by referee Chris White, the TMO eventually gave the score.
Turning round at 6-6 Bath went straight in search of a try and James put in another deft kick for Banahan to chase. There was then a prime attacking opportunity after Geordan Murphy's 22 drop-out went dead at the other end but the ball squirted out of the side of the scrum.
The Bath defensive effort was typified by a huge Watson tackle on Italian prop Martin Castrogiovanni and it seemed that even the Tigers realised that they were not going to find a way around or through the tackles.
It then became a game of territory as Ben Youngs and Flood sent kicks deep into Bath territory, setting up the positions from which they would eventually kick the penalties to win the game.
A long throw over the top of the line-out to Andy Beattie eased one sticky moment and Matt Carraro brought off another stunning hit on Alesana Tuilagi. But Leicester built the pressure and Flood missed an angled penalty from 35 metres after Mears was penalised at the back of a ruck. The penalty could easily have been reversed though after a flag was raised, apparently after George Chuter swung a punch at his opposite number.
On the hour Flood finally edged his side 9-6 ahead with a 45-metre kick and, as the Bath line-out began to falter under intense pressure from the Tigers forwards, the England fly-half made it 12-6 on 64 minutes.
In their desperation to find some way out of the 'choke hold' exerted by Leicester's tactics, Bath began to throw increasingly hopeful passes.
And the scrum provided the clinching score when Flatman, driving forward, was adjudged to have taken it down in front of the posts. His exasperation was clear for all to see as Flood's 72nd minute penalty opened up a two-score gap and the loosehead, whose week had begun so well with a call-up to the England squad, trudged off to be replaced by David Barnes.
There was still time for Barkley to attempt a penalty from long range but his effort drifted wide.
By Kevin Coughlan
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