By Ed Scott
November 22 2012
Friday night sparks the beginning of two pivotal matches for Bath in the Premiership as they play the top contenders for the title in as many weeks. Harlequins visit Bath tomorrow in a repeat of the LV Cup game at The Stoop, with Bath needing a serious improvement in performance if they hope to avoid consecutive defeats to the Champions.
It hasn’t been the best time of late for Bath; after a poor performance against London Welsh, they defeated an under par Dragons side before imploding against Quins last Friday. The key issue seemed once again to be discipline, with the penalty count against Bath topping the scales at a whopping 22, versus the 6 conceded by Harlequins. Whichever way you look at it, you simply cannot play rugby like that and expect to win. In fact looking at those stats we seem lucky to have only lost by 9 points.
Bath’s problems are littered over the pitch at present. They are clearly missing the presence of Paul James and Davey Wilson, as well as the influence and impact of Francois Louw and Carl Fearns in the back row. The backline are struggling to fire, and our propensity to aimlessly put boot to ball seems to have returned to haunt us once more. It is so frustrating to have watched the first half against Exeter, which held such promise, and then to witness the clueless ‘tactical’ kicking against London Welsh. I take solace from the fact that we are capable of playing that kind of rugby, whilst also being hugely frustrated that we’re not consistently doing it!
Both teams are missing players, but looking at the squads, Quins simply seem to have more depth. It is time for the likes of Perenise, Beech, Ovens and Mercer to step up and prove that they can cut it at Premiership level. I feel that we will miss our big players more than they will, but these guys have played enough for us to expect a performance from them.
Friday is big game for Stephen Donald. I have been a massive supporter of him over the last 12 months, but it really is time he brings his A game to the table. He has had a tiny reprieve in some ways, as I think it unlikely that he would be starting had Tom Heathcote not been called up by Scotland (well done Tom). He now faces his fellow countryman, Nick Evans, who is surely still the best 10 in the Premiership. If this challenge doesn’t get him to step up to the mark, then nothing probably will. I will caveat however, that unless he gets decent ball from our inexperienced pack, we cannot let him shoulder the blame for a poor performance up front.
Harlequins are good in the wet and the dry, but are not unbeatable. I believe that Turner-Hall and Hopper are both great players, but JTH almost always takes the ball route one, and Hopper is prone to the odd missed tackle. Tom Williams is also a fine player, but does not regularly play at 15. If we manage to execute an effective kicking game, we may well be able to put him under pressure.
With few weaknesses in their pack, our back row must stop the rumbling carries of Nick Easter (a likely role for Simon Taylor) and work hard to put pressure on their lineout. We are highly unlikely to get any change at scrum time, with parity being the best I think we could hope for. Claassens will need to do what he does best, and hassle Karl Dickson’s service to give Nick Evans as little time as possible. Evans has the very odd off day with the boot, so let’s hope we can rattle him into a few errors.
The chat on COML at the moment is about losing bonus points and the weakness of our pack. They may well be valid opinions, and certainly the odds are stacked against Bath, but I’d rather let us play the game before condemning us to defeat. If the matches in this competition were a foregone conclusion, then there’d be not point in it existing! We need to remember how good we can be ball in hand and play intelligently in the right parts of the field. We have an exciting back three, a very fast pack, and a home crowd to cheer them on. Under the lights, anything could happen.