Two back to back LV=Cup wins for Bath has seen them barrel their way into the semi-finals when it was looking like a long shot for them to do so. A big ask, but an inspired move from Gary Gold helped spark the ignition of Bath to drive forward and gain their place in the last four.
With the RBS Six Nations due players were to be drafted out for international duties either be first teams or 'A' teams respectively many teams were to be light on players, also many squads concentrating on Premiership, Heineken cup or even Amlin teams decided to rest a few elite players for LV=Cup fixtures. Bath also struck with the loss of Claasens through injury were left with Chris Cook and Mark McMillan, two young scrum halves with a huge task of holding the fort until the return of the more experienced Claasens can make his return. With this news Gary Gold looked to an old favourite of his and drafted in Irish scrum half legend Peter Stringer.
Off the back of two successful Amlin cup wins and confidence slowly returning to the Bath faithfuls minds Bath get two local derby matches in the LV=Cup, home to the ever improving Cheifs then away to Kingholm to face their old foes the Cherry and Whites. Two fixtures that are becoming more and more important and now seen as must win games, to help drive Bath forward into the last leg of the premiership and hope to resurrect a top six finish.
Game one sees the ever impressive Exeter Chiefs who's progression from their promotion to the top flight has earned them much accolade and made them a team to be wary off. Looking like an exciting game two new faces lined up at the start, the long awaited debut of Rob Webber and an introduction to Mat Gilbert.
Bath still unbeaten against Chiefs had no intention of losing that crown struck first after five minutes through a Heathcote penalty. A match that many thought would be a hard fought battle and a real nip and tuck game were not wrong in the first half. Both sides cancelling out each others points, nearing half time the scores were square at six a piece. Two minutes before the break saw Mark McMillan go down injured and have to be replaced, enter the next debutant of the day.....Peter Stringer. A brief glimpse before half time demonstrated the second half might liven up a little, fast and accurate ball off the back of the ruck showed Bath may certainly take this to the Chiefs.
In the first half Bath had defended hard at times against Chiefs now the roles were to be reversed. A huge lift in pace led by Stringer saw the ball whipping out wide and spreading through the Backs, this is the type of play we'd dreamt of seeing all season. The pressure became relentless and only time would tell before the scores would come. A kick able penalty was turned down and Heathcote went for the corner instead, showing Bath's intent to break the Chiefs defence. Batty (Webber's half time replacement) threw into the line out initiating a strong rolling maul which was held up just short, with a little nip down the blind side Stringer darted over to score his first try in Blue, Black and White.
Bath were now in full stride 11-6 up and the bit between the teeth, more and more pressure mounted from Bath and we only had to wait six minutes before we got the points on the board. Almost identical to Bath's first the second mimicked it only on the opposing side of the field, and spotting that blind side gap once again was the 'new boy' Stringer bursting over for try number two and a 16-6 lead.
I can't remember the last time I saw a player make such an impact in a game, with the final score remaining 16-6 Bath's pressure remained the same through the second half. Seeing the fast and accurate distribution from Stringer it demonstrated what we've been missing down at the Rec, for many we hope he can pass on some of his experience and expertise to the young pairing of scrum halves and help turn them into future Bath legends.
A monkey that has been riding on the back of Bath has been their form against Gloucester, with a trip to Kingsholm a win is required to progress through to the semi-finals. Bath not having a victory against the Cherry and Whites at Kingsholm since 2006 showed the velocity of the task in hand. Although Bath not winning up there for so long there seemed to be a positive resurgence of belief that this task was very doable. Bath started out with the intention stamped down that they were to prove they can score tries, instead of going for the three pointers Bath wanted to make their early pressure show and penalty kicks for touch were the order of the day.
One try ruled to be held up as Rob Webber crossed the line made it feel that it was only a matter of time, then when Andy Hazell received a ten minute rest on the naughty step for up ending Webber this gave Bath another advantage they required. Another kick to touch, clean ball, slick hands from the back line and left Woodburn and open corner to slide in for the first score of the day.
Hazell's return to the park was short lived as he swapped places with Tom Savage who got his marching orders for ten minutes for pulling down in the line out. Gloucester stood firm this time and managed to fend off the relentless pressure being steeped upon them from Bath. Filtering into the final ten minutes of the opening half saw the pressure being reversed and Gloucester started to take the driving seat eventually crashing over from a well worked maul and equalling the score.
On reflecting the first half worry that Bath may have wasted so much pressure and Gloucester had the bit between their teeth and may take control through the second half, could it be an almost but not quite performance from Bath?
Gloucester came out with the same fight and looked like they were over for a second, luckily defence stayed strong and forced a penalty. This seemed the turning point in Baths fortunes as handling through the backs saw the game soon to be deep in Gloucester territory eventually forcing Sharples into touch. Off the back of a line out the Bath handling continued ending up with Abendanon crashing into the corner for try number two.
The only kick at goal for a penalty was grabbed by Sam Vesty and now Bath had their tales up and were now insistent on making the most of the upper hand at Kingsholm. He link up between the back line now in full flow saw three more tries to come Bath's way first up saw new boy Mat Gilbert pop up through the middle taking his first try in Blue, Black and White, this saw the the shed faithful realise they'd seen enough and a mass exodus opted to make their way to the local in preparation for the RBS six Nations game between England and Scotland.
Rokoduguni was the on the score sheet with a fantastic turn of pace and quick feet scooping up a bonus point try and hitting the final nail in the coffin for Gloucester. Yet now Bath still had more, if your going to do it do it properly. Stephen Donald was released through the middle and with a firm hand off it was now his turn to grab another five points for Bath.
A win for Bath at Kingholm by 5-32 was a big positive for them and demonstrates when the ball is opened out how quick they can move and how clinical Bath are able to perform. Chris cook took over the duties of Stringer late on in the second half and carried on the quick distribution allowing the game and players to keep flowing, seems Cook is learning the Stringer way.
From the result of these two fixtures its enabled Bath to progress into the semi-finals to face Quins at the Stoop on the 9th March, another fixture where Bath could capitalise on Quins having players out on international duties. I know pining this these wins on the introduction of Stringer is a little ambitious, he needs the players around him to carry out this free flowing game. I just feel its proof we need keep faith and belief in Gary Gold as this is an inspired signing and he is aware of what will take Bath forward.
Onwards and upwards!