I've often wondered why geographical proximity to another team has such an impact on the build-up to a game of rugby and often the match itself. Why should Bath v Gloucester feel like a 'bigger' game than Bath v Sale for instance? Certainly the mental and physical approach of players to 'derby' matches was somehow different in days gone by. The intensity was similar to a cup final match whenever we played Bristol or Gloucester. Perhaps it had something to do with 'bragging rights' as players and spectators from both teams were more likely to see each other in the weeks following a game. Having spent the last 20+ years watching rather than participating it appears that even with the onset of professionalism, little has changed regarding the atmosphere of these derby matches. There remains something extra special about a win against either of the aforementioned teams.
Supporters of a certain vintage will remember the 1990 Pilkington Cup Final at Twickenham when Bath absolutely dominated Gloucester, winning 48-6. I probably travelled up the M5 the following week to ensure I managed to get some 'quality gloating' done!
My most memorable game against the 'Cherry & Whites' was in 1986 the week after Bath secured their third successive victory in the John Player Cup. The final was against Wasps and at 13 – 0 down things were not going according to plan. During the week leading up to the game Stuart Barnes, our fly half and goal-kicker had injured a toe. He was OK to play but couldn't kick so John Palmer assumed the kicking duties. On the day John had a couple of difficult kicks which narrowly missed and then pulled a muscle in one of his legs. The next time we had a penalty within range our captain, Roger Spurrell, handed me the ball saying, "stick it between the posts for me." I placed the ball, 3o metres out, slightly to the left of centre, possibly the easiest kick in the world. Whilst I'd been a goal-kicker at school, apart from 5 minutes prior to training sessions I had not kicked a ball 'in anger' for almost seven years and had never kicked a ball in front of 40,000 spectators. I was genuinely nervous, (adults reading this will appreciate 'genuinely nervous' doesn't come close to describing my fear but the editor refused to print my original description!).
My lower shin rather than my boot made contact with the ball, but somehow it wobbled over the crossbar. I followed this pathetic but successful kick with three further successes, including one from the touchline – four out of four in the cup final - pure luck.
Seven days later we played Gloucester at home in the last match of the season. Just before we ran onto the pitch, Spurrell looked at me and reluctantly said, "I suppose you better take the kicks again today."
I'm not sure if we scored eight or nine tries that afternoon, but what I do know is I missed every single kick at goal. Had it not been for the fact we were running in tries for fun on a beautiful sunny day, and we had no one else fit enough or prepared to take the kicks, I would have been stood down from duty long before half time. My crowning glory was the last kick of the match, taken from close to the riverside touchline about 35 metres from the tryline. I made contact with the ball; (by no means a certainty at that stage) briefly kept my head down and then looked up to hopefully see it soar through the posts. What I actually saw was......... nothing, I scanned the sky line and for a bit of fun even looked behind me, but couldn't see the ball anywhere. The whistle blew for the end of the match and I walked off with our centre Simon Halliday. After a moment or two I asked Simon if he knew what had happened to my last kick? He started to laugh and asked if I genuinely didn't know where it went. "Not a clue" I responded. He took great delight informing me my kick actually hit the advertising boards on the far side of the pitch!
Still, 40,000 people at Twickenham and a couple of million TV viewers think I can kick. A few thousand at the Rec know the truth.