On a chill, drizzly day in the West Country it was little surprise that it took time for cockles to be warmed but a five-try second-half blitz, including two from Wales and Lions No 8 Taulupe Faletau to complete his hat-trick, brought suitable cheer to the crowd as Bath secured the bonus-point win that keeps their faint play-off prospects alive.
The victory confirmed Bath’s presence in next season’s Champions Cup but their chances of contesting the Premiership semi-finals depend on them putting in another bonus-point performance at Sale on Saturday’s final round of league matches and trusting that fourth-placed Leicester return from Worcester with nothing. It is no more than a wild-card possibility but that slim likelihood will sustain them through another week’s training. Hope is the fuel of every sportsman.
In that regard Gloucester will have to dig deep into their own reserves, pledging themselves to pick up what they can in their own battle at home to Exeter to finish seventh and looking to beat Stade Français in the European Challenge Cup final at Murrayfield in a fortnight’s time to push their claim to be England’s seventh representative in Europe’s elite tournament through that play-off system.
“That was our worst 10 minutes of rugby [in the third quarter] in three years,” said Gloucester director of rugby, David Humphreys. “It was embarrassing and it killed us.”
The rash of tries after the interval – Gloucester themselves scored a couple in the closing stages through Jonny May and David Halaifonua – was a welcome upturn, for the first half had been torpid, bereft of skill or ambition.
There was plenty of grunt, lots of sweat and toil but little sparkle. The rare bit of quality, such as Faletau, stood out. “He was unbelievable, world-class,” said one who should know, former All Black captain and Bath director of rugby Todd Blackadder. “If he takes that form to New Zealand, it will be all go.”
Faletau has grown steadily through this latter part of the season after an injury-affected opening, good news for the Lions as he vies with Billy Vunipola for the starting shirt in New Zealand.
Faletau does not have the same muscular power as his cousin but he has an awareness of play and the deft skills to exploit any opportunity that are on a par with All Black captain Kieran Read. Faletau is invariably in the right place at the right time, as all his tries illustrated. He was the first to react to a chip kick from his scrum-half, Kahn Fotuali’i in the 27th minute to gather and slide in. Faletau capped a fine day’s work with two tries in the last eight minutes, taking advantage of neat inside passes from George Ford and Luke Charteris to touch down in one corner in the 72nd minute and then on the other flank four minutes later. It was a tour de force display.
Bath’s aspirations are to be top of the pile, not trailing in the slipstream of the play-off big boys. “If we don’t achieve top four then it is only right that questions have got to be asked,” Blackadder said. “We have got to match the club’s ambition on the field. We can’t be happy with fifth or sixth.”
If their frustrated fans needed comfort for the future then one dazzling, try-scoring run from 21-year-old centre Max Clark would have had had them scrambling for their season-ticket renewals.
With Jonathan Joseph nursing a wear-and-tear injury, the Wales-born but England-qualified Clark took full advantage of a rare outing when stepping and slicing through for his high-quality score in the 49th minute. Clark hit the line at top speed as the ball was moved swiftly infield from a line-out. One sidestep, two sidesteps then Clark, still at full throttle, rounded the last defender and dived over. From Jerry Guscott to Joseph, it was the sort of try that has been the high-calibre hallmark of centres in these parts.
Gloucester would have been reasonably satisfied at half-time with only a 10-8 deficit and the wind at their backs to come, but Aled Brew’s try for Bath within three minutes of the restart put paid to those upbeat imaginings.
That set the tone for the second half. Bath’s dander was up, Clark’s effort was matched in the 67th minute by a devastating solo score from Robbie Fruean. Faletau’s brace rubbed salt into the wounds and emphasised the gulf between the teams.
Faletau capped a fine day’s work with two tries in the last eight minutes, taking advantage of neat inside passes from George Ford and Luke Charteris to touch down in one corner in the 72nd minute and then in the other four minutes later. It was a tour de force display and the first hat-trick by a Bath forward since Matt Stevens in 2003.
Gloucester replacement hooker, Motu Matu’u, looked to be in distress from a head injury but returned to the field with Humphreys insisting that all the correct protocols had been observed. It was a painful day all round for Gloucester.