Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Premiership Review - Harlequins 19 - 16 Bath


Life can be pretty harsh sometimes for anyone.  I find it pretty unfair that I have had to go through two knee reconstructions and haven't played rugby for over 2 years.  I also find it unfair that Scarlett Johansson has overlooked my undoubted charm and has cast her net elsewhere.  But there's always someone who's worse off.  And, as an immediate example, I should imagine that everyone at Bath rugby is fairly disenchanted with their luck at the moment.

For 95% of the season they have been in the playoff spots, winning plaudits for both their style and the winning mentality that they had established.  In contrast, their opponents on Saturday – Harlequins – had suffered a season of squad-decimating injuries, that had seen them nowhere near the top four for 95% of the season.  And yet, when Bath travelled to the Stoop on Saturday afternoon for the final round of Premiership action, it was winner takes all – win, and they were through to the semi-finals, lose and that honour went to Quins again.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, both sides weren't at their fluent best in the opening exchanges, with knock-ons and turnovers the order of the day, but it was Bath and, in particular, George Ford, who were looking the most dangerous with the ball in hand.  Twice the tyro fly-half darted through on Jordon Turner-Hall's inside shoulder, the powerful centre drifting too early each time, and twice Mike Brown came to the hosts' rescue with typically bullish defence.  Big flanker Matt Garvey also broke through early on, only for his pass to the even larger Matt Banahan to drift behind the man.

Eventually, though, the Londoners found their rhythm and began attacking with speed and momentum, gaining field position thanks to a barnstorming run up the middle from Tim Molenaar.  From there, slick hands from Nick Easter and Dave Ward got Quins close to the Bath line before Danny Care threw a magnificent, looping pass out wide and into the hands of Brown, who slid in for the game's opening score.  Nick Evans converted superbly in blustery conditions from out wide, and the hosts had a 7 point lead.

Which lasted for 5 minutes.  Following a powerful bust off the base of the scrum by Leroy Houston, George Ford found space on Turner-Hall's inside shoulder once again and scooted between Brown and Ugo Monye once again to score his second fabulous solo try in as many weeks.  He converted his own score from out in front to level scores, and we were back to square one.  That remained the case even though Easter thought he had struck straight back for his side after collecting a smart offload from Care to dive in by the posts, but referee Wayne Barnes and the TMO ruled the pass forward.  It was a marginal call at best and one which you've seen given in favour of the attacking side more often than not.

If it was unclear where the balance of power lay in this fixture, it became increasingly clear that both sides were having a nightmare at the lineout.  The swirling wind was making it very difficult for the hookers, but even Dave Ward – whose throwing has been markedly improved this season – was struggling with anything to the middle or beyond.  Likewise, Eusebio Guinazu continued his dodgy form in the set piece for Argentina in Bath colours, and things didn't get much better when youngster Tom Dunn took his place after the Puma left the field with a spectacular amount of blood pouring from his head after an unfortunate clash of noggins with his opposite number, Ward.  Harlequins, though, did manage to sneak in front just before the break when Evans, who had missed a simple penalty minutes earlier, slammed over 3 points from close range to give the hosts a 10 – 7 lead.

Bath, though, had been in the top 4 of the Premiership for 20 of the 22 rounds, and were not about to give that spot up without a fight.  Nick Abendanon, leaving for France at the end of the season, reminded Premiership fans what they'll be missing as he ghosted through the Quins line, only to be hauled down just short by Brown and the superb Chris Robshaw.  As it were, the visitors had to settle for 3 points from the boot of Ford but, at 10-10, it was still enough to see them through to the playoffs.

The tide turned though, on a single mistake by Ford, as the youngster hit the ball straight into touch.  From that lineout, Ward took a great inside ball from Easter to dance through the Quins defence, and when Banahan played the ball in an offside position, he was promptly shown a yellow card.  It led to a period of Quins dominance, predictably, in which Evans slotted two penalties – the first coming as a result of a kick and chase from Brown that piled pressure onto the Bath line, and the second came after Kyle Sinckler showed great speed to chase down a smart kick from Care.  It would have been more for the hosts as well, had it not been for aggressive defence from Dave Attwood, Carl Fearns and Matt Garvey.

Banahan returned on the hour mark with his side 6 points down, and things needed to change quickly.  Three penalties were scored in quick succession – all awarded for playing the man off the ball – with two efforts from Ford sandwiching one from Evans, leaving the score at 19 – 16 to Harlequins going into the final minutes.  The game became cagey and, although Quins continued to hold the lion's share of possession, Bath eventually ground their way into enemy territory.  They didn't trust their pack though, to drive them closer to the red-zone, and so Ford took a long-range drop goal attempt for the win.  For the playoffs.  It all came down to one kick.

It wasn't to be, as Ford's efforts to gain the extra distance meant the attempt was scuffed, much like Bath's season at the very end.  This was supposed to be the season that they broke into that hallowed Top 4 spot but, despite their failure at the death to do it, they should look back on this season with pride.  Despite an overhaul and a huge influx of players over the summer, they have played with a cohesiveness that few expected.  Now they need stability, and hopefully owner Bruce Craig won't be sharpening any axes just yet. 

As for Quins, well, they've been through the mill this season, and yet here they are, in the semi-finals again with the 'usual suspects'.   They might be known as the flashy boys of the Premiership, but they've shown this year that they can take one heck of a beating and still come out fighting.

What else was happening in the final round of the Aviva Premiership?

Leicester Tigers 31 – 27 Saracens:  A largely 2nd XV Leicester Tigers overcame a largely 3rd XV Saracens thanks largely to a contentious red card (now rescinded) dished out to flanker Justin Melck for eye-gouging.  Both teams claimed try bonus points, with the Tigers scoring through a penalty try, Manu Tuilagi, Blaine Scully and Graham Kitchener, with the visitors getting tries through Ben Spencer (2), a penalty try and Jack Wilson.

London Irish 22 – 20 Sale Sharks:  Irish finished a difficult season on a high with a great home win against Sale.  The Sharks looked comfortable after tries from Mark Easter and Tom Arscott, but efforts from Andy Fenby (2) and Marland Yarde were enough to see the hosts claim the win.

Newcastle Falcons 13 – 23 Exeter Chiefs:  Falcons may have stayed up but they have been in wretched form in 2014 and they sank to another home defeat against the Chiefs.  Exeter scored through Luke Cowan-Dickie, Ben White and Fetu'u Vainikolo, with Mark Wilson grabbing a consolation at the end.

Northampton Saints 74 – 13 London Wasps:  Saints warmed up for their semi-final against the Tigers in magnificent style as they swept aside a woeful Wasps side.  The Londoners actually took the lead through Charlie Davies and Tom Varndell, but Saints woke up after 20 minutes and ran in 11 tries through (deep breath) George North (2), Phil Dowson (2), Stephen Myler, Luther Burrell, Lee Dickson (2), Ben Foden, Ken Pisi and Tom Stephenson.

Worcester Warriors 28 – 27 Gloucester:  Warriors ended their relegation season with one last hurrah and put the icing on a crap season for the Cherry and Whites with a hard-fought win over Gloucester.  Tries for Johnny May (2), Shane Monahan and Ben Morgan weren't enough for the visitors, who saw the hosts cross through Semisi Taulava, Ryan Lamb and Josh Drauniniu.

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