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Disappointment for Bath, but bright future beckons under Ashton

Indeed they may well have failed in what was possibly their best shot at some silverware this season and perhaps a place in next season's Heineken Cup, but you get the feeling that the club that once dominated the domestic game is beginning to show signs of what lies ahead in this new era under Brian Ashton.
Prior to Ashton's arrival, Bath were a club that required some finishing. Renowned for having a power pack under influential forwards coach Mike Foley, the West Country side lacked that attacking bite out wide and struggled to cross the whitewash regularly in the Guinness Premiership. However, things have changed dramatically in recent weeks and Bath are now playing rugby under Ashton, asking questions of opposition defences - it is a new philosophy for a club that has previously played with such structure.

The flip side to the infancy stages of this new philosophy is that there will be teething problems and that was evident within Saturday's performance at the Millennium Stadium. Bath were perhaps guilty of playing too much rugby from within their own twenty-two playing against a Llanelli side that played with a great deal of heart and passion. Too often, Ashton's side made unforced errors in dangerous areas of the field, whilst with the sin-binning of Andy Higgins for an offside infringement cost the English side seven points.

"There is a time to play and a time not to play and we have not quite understood that yet," admitted Ashton. "In the lead we should have tied the Scarlets down in the corner for a while. For now, we are on a rollercoaster ride until we get it right."

Ashton is right. If Bath do get everything right then Bath supporters can look forward to exciting times at the Recreation Ground heading into next season and beyond.

It is difficult to see how Bath lost this game. In total control at half time and 23-10 up after 45 minutes, it seemed as though Bath, playing some superb rugby, would race home at a canter. However, Llanelli deserve great credit for the way they came back and attacked Bath, seizing their chances through errors and taking the points when on offer - something they had failed to do in the first half.

Led by Wales fringe player Alix Popham, who was immense on the evening, Llanelli took an early lead through their Scottish prop Craig Dunlea who burrowed through a mass of bodies under the posts for a converted try.

Bath, who had started well through the trusted boot of Chris Malone, asked questions of the Llanelli defence, but spilt ball in the midfield and despite some excellent arly periods of pressure had just two Malone penalties to show for their efforts. They were also let off by the poor kicking at the opposite end by fullback Barry Davies, who missed three first half penalty opportunities.

Bath though, always looked in control and when the ball did stick to the hands they threatened with every attack. The West Country side regained the lead in the 28th minute when Alex Crockett, who has been outstanding of late, scored a brilliant individual try. The centre, who has just signed a new contract with the club, received an offload from Salesi Finau before stepping one player, chipping ahead and gathering his own kick to score in the corner. Scottish referee Malcolm Changleng needed the assistance of the video referee to award the try.

From there on Bath were in complete control. They went further ahead after a high tackle on Lee Mears resulted in a third penalty for Malone and went into the interval with a six point lead after Davies finally found his range to reduce the arrears.

Bath started the second half in confident mood and after a series of attacks inside the Llanelli half went further ahead after Joe Maddock scored a beautiful try. The Kiwi flyer, who had a quiet opening first forty, gathered a superb offload from Finau to cut a beautiful angle to score. Malone's conversion gave Bath a seemingly unassailable 23-10 lead.

Then came the Scarlets fight back. A move inside the Bath half was well finished by centre Regan King and Mike Hercus, who had inherited the kicking duties, slotted over the extra two points to ensure that Llanelli remained in the match.

Andy Higgins sin-binning for an offside, meant that Bath were down to fourteen men and Llanelli sensing the vulnerability of their opponents, pushed and pulled Bath across the field, searching for an opening. Eventually one came. When Joe Maddock was laid low after a blow to the face, Bath were effectively down to thirteen men and Mark Jones seized the opportunity to score out wide. Hercus' conversion gave Llanelli the lead.

Bath fought back and Malone's penalty recaptured the lead, but a three pointer by Hercus meant that the Welsh side entered the final ten minutes with a slender one point lead. Bath launched a series of attacks as the game neared the end and worked a drop goal opportunity for Malone, but it was not to be.

Bath may have travelled back down the M4 wondering how they had managed to lose a match 26-27 that they were in complete control of, but when you look at the bigger picture, it is just a matter of time before everything clicks under Ashton.

Bath Rugby: 15 Perry, 14 Higgins (yellow card), 13 Crockett (1t), 12 Maddock (1t), 11 Finau (Abendanon), 10 Malone (3p, 2c), 9 Walshe, 1 Flatman, 2 Mears, 3 Bell (Loader), 4 Borthwick (captain), 5 Grewcock (Short), 6 Beattie, 7 Lipman, 8 Feauanti

Reps: 16 Dixon, 17 Loader, 18 Delve, 19 Short, 20 Williams, 21 Dunne, 22 Abendanon

Llanelli Scarlets: 15 Davies, 14 Jones, 13 Watkins, 12 King, 11 James, 10 Hercus, 9 Stuart-Smith, 1 Dunlea, 2 Rees, 3 Davies, 4 Afeaki, 5 Jones, 6 Easterby (captain), 7 Thomas, 8 Popham

Reps: Madden, 17 Gravelle, 18 Dafydd Jones, 19 Gavin Quinnell, 20 Gareth Bowen, 21 Liam Davies, 22 Lee Byrne

Att: 50,811
Ref: Malcolm Changleng
Cards: Higgins

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