Saturday January 23,2016
Bath Rugby v Toulon
ERCC Round 6
The Recreation Ground, Bath
Dyson Stand; Block H;Row R;Seat 212;£44.00
Take two of the more nakedly ambitious clubs, two of the more controversial owners/financiers, a liberal sprinkling of some of the most talked about players in European rugby…….If additional spice were needed, throw in Steve Meehan, a former head coach at the Rec but who now runs the Toulon attack. ….
And there’s never a dull moment with Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal. His latest wheeze is that his club should leave the Top14 and move to the Aviva Premiership. English club owners were not slow in throwing cold water over that idea.
This game certainly had its attractions. A year ago Bath were on a high, about to qualify for the last eight of the European Champions Cup despite losing their first two group matches. But today they were playing only for third place in their pool, the so-called “group of death” in this year’s competition. Fellow premiership members Wasps were the team expected to struggle but after big wins against Leinster, Toulon and Bath they were the ones most likely to qualify. Toulon had to win today’s game to reach the quarter-finals.
Bath have not suddenly become a bad team but the confidence that bubbled last season has evaporated. That was clear last weekend when they timidly succumbed to a Leinster side that included only a sprinkling of regulars and a number of academy players. Bath supporters have been quick to give their opinions on why they think their side is not clicking. They range from Mike Ford isn’t a head coach, he’s an assistant; Farleigh Castle (Bath’s HQ and training facility) is too nice; George Ford can’t tackle; bringing in Sam Burgess was disruptive (even though he had returned to rugby league by the time this season kicked off); and that old chestnut, the players are paid too much money.
After Bath had lost away to Newcastle (who hadn’t won a league match), Mike Ford said he thought the players needed to look at themselves, obviously hoping to get a reaction. It worked (up to a point – they still lost) for the game in Toulon, but in the following match at Leinster Bath looked flat and lacking energy.
So Toulon knew exactly what they wanted from their final pool match, and with Bath playing for pride, a comfortable win by the current European champions seemed likely. In fact they had to dig hard and deep to subdue a brave and resourceful second-half performance from Bath that almost brought them a famous victory. But in the end, a rather lame start and a clear edge in power, especially up front, proved too much. That edge was epitomised by Steffon Armitage, the man England refuse to select, who once again gave a bull-like performance.
It was somehow typical of Bath’s season that the match was decided by one big mistake. A cross-field kick from right to left by Toulon’s Quade Cooper ran loose; David Denton grabbed it but then attempted a high, looped pass which fell into the grateful arms of Bryan Habana who was over the line in a flash.
In the end Toulon just about deserved the win and a quarter-final place, but at least it was close, and Bath deprived them of the bonus point win that would have seen them top the group. And then came news that Wasps had thrashed Leinster at the Ricoh Arena to put themselves top of the pile.
Despite their side having no chance of progressing Bath fans turned up in their numbers, which probably says a lot about the attraction of a team like Toulon. But there is more than a hint about the French side of a team, if not in decline, at least in the doldrums. They progressed to the quarter finals in much the same way as they have progressed throughout this year’s pool stages – incoherently but with enough muscle and know-how to get by. Perhaps it is little wonder that their owner is wanting to move to the Aviva Premiership….