A feisty West Country derby featuring two red cards ended in a breathless victory for 13-man Bath and relief for the watching Wales head coach Wayne Pivac before next week’s Wales v England showdown in Cardiff. Both Taulupe Faletau and Louis Rees-Zammit made it safely through unscathed in a contest fundamentally shaped by the dismissals of Val Rapava-Ruskin and Mike Williams for high challenges.
Gloucester were required to play all but eight minutes of the game with 14 men after Rapava-Ruskin was sent off by Wayne Barnes for a forearm to the face of Josh Bayliss, but the numbers were evened up when the shoulder of Bath’s Williams made contact with the head of the visiting full-back Kyle Moyle after 53 minutes.
That set up a tight finish which Gloucester appeared to have edged when captain Lewis Ludlow crashed over in the right corner with four minutes left. The bottom side reckoned without the boot of Rhys Priestland, who enjoyed the final word with a 79th-minute penalty from 45 metres out despite the late absence of Jonathan Joseph, sin-binned for a deliberate knock-on in the hectic closing moments. Remarkably Priestland has now landed 27 successful kicks in a row.
Those who argue the absence of Premiership relegation this season will instantly improve the quality of the product may not choose this game as Exhibit A, but there was absolutely no lack of drama. Not for the first time this year – and it will not be the last – head-high collisions were a major talking point and central to the narrative.
Might Rapava-Ruskin argue at his hearing that Bayliss was too high as he came in to tackle? Yes, there was contact between forearm and face, which made it technically the correct decision, but at full speed it did not look overly heinous. The freeze-framed slow-motion pictures, however, left Barnes little other option than to reach for his red card.
Gloucester’s head coach George Skivington described it as “an error of judgment” by Rapava-Ruskin and “fair enough by the letter of the law” but there also has to be an onus on tacklers to improve their technique. There was no argument whatsoever, though, about Williams’ dismissal, the back row charging into contact with little obvious attempt to wrap his arms.
Not that Bath’s period of numerical advantage brought them much immediate benefit. Instead it was Gloucester who looked more energised, enjoying plenty of territory and being rewarded with a 6-0 lead from two simple Billy Twelvetrees penalties. Ludlow was also held up over the Bath line and it was a major relief for the hosts when a turnover beneath their own posts stemmed the Cherry and White tide.
There was to be no further scoring until just before the interval when nice approach work from the Bath backs and a lovely delayed pass from Tom De Glanville put Faletau over for a cracking score. Priestland’s conversion and two penalties widened the gap to 13-6 but at no stage did Bath pull away.
It leaves both clubs in the bottom three, not that the table means as much any more. Is this the shape of English league rugby for the foreseeable future? These days they can broadcast live footage from Mars but English rugby still does not seem entirely sure what its audience wants. Any aliens making the reverse trip to Earth will probably be seeking a second opinion. Is this really what earthlings enjoy? Hold that spaceship.
One hundred and thirty nine years of rivalry, nevertheless, can never be entirely irrelevant and it was lovely to hear Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire being played in memory of the late Bath No 8 Dave Egerton as the two teams ran out. The only downside was the complete absence of fans to join the minute’s applause for a hugely popular local figure. If there is anything sadder than a Wales v England international in a completely empty Principality Stadium, it is an old-school derby in the shadow of Bath Abbey played in cloistered silence.