Bath fly half George Ford missed an injury-time penalty to force extra time in a frenetic finish to their Challenge Cup semi-final against Stade Français in Paris.
After a fairly pedestrian first hour, the game exploded into life in the last quarter. Trailing 18-11, Bath engineered three tries in eight minutes through the outstanding Semesa Rokoduguni, Robbie Fruean and Elliott Stooke to take a 25-18 lead. But the inquest into how they failed to hang on to book their place in the final against Gloucester, or at the very least earn extra-time, would make the Leveson Report seem like a bit of light reading.
With three minutes to go Bath had possession inside the Stade half. With 90 seconds to go the scores were still level and extra time was a prospect, then in injury-time there was a butchered two-on-one and a missed penalty. That they came away with nothing owes to some catastrophic game management, primarily by Ford. The penalty miss amid a cacophony of boos was forgivable, the earlier shortened restart that allowed Stade to head downfield to score what proved to be the winning drop goal through Jules Plisson far less so.
For all the wonderful touches Ford displayed, especially in absorbing a monstrous hit to set up Stooke for Bath’s third try, this was uncomfortable reminder why the British & Irish Lions coach, Warren Gatland, preferred the steadier talents of Dan Biggar in his squad. Eight missed points with the boot does not help Ford’s cause. Not that he was solely culpable. There was enough experience within the Bath ranks for calm to have been called for when they got their noses ahead. Instead their exuberance got the better of them and Stade took advantage.
That is emblematic of a season that promised much but seems set to fizzle away, with a Premiership play-off place now unlikely. “I thought we had it there,” Todd Blackadder, the director of rugby said. “To lose it the way we did was really disappointing. To come away with nothing and being knocked out is obviously disappointing, especially when we were only three minutes from a win and a chance to play in the final.”
Stade were playing their second game in five days after completing the fixture cancelled when their players went on strike over the proposed merger with Parisian rivals Racing 92. Top 14 winners two seasons ago, their team is still littered with superstars from the ageless Sergio Parisse to the dynamic Will Genia and it was the class of Hugo Bonneval that set up the opening try for Geoffrey Doumayrou.
Both teams looked to play but for the most part it was scrappy affair. Wing Waisea Vuidravuwalu denied Bath centre Ben Tapuai a try at one end and Matt Banahan held up Bonneval at the other. A pair of Ford penalties ensured that Bath were only 11-6 down at half-time. Stade, though moved two scores clear when Genia expertly found Plisson cutting a line under the posts.
Bath’s recovery owed initially to Francois Louw charging down a kick with his face. Many phases later, Rokoduguni handed off Julien Arias to score in the corner. They drew level when Rokoduguni drew the tackle and released Anthony Watson, who put Fruean over, with Ford missing the conversion.
There was no time to draw breath. With their tails up, Bath attacked again, initially through Fruean on the left before Ford delayed his pass perfectly to put Stooke, another replacement, over while drawing a heavy hit in the process.
Still the game would not let up. Stade broke left through Djibril Camara, who bypassed Watson and found Hugh Pyle, the lock somehow having the gas left in the tank to outpace the covering defence. “We just can’t afford to have those lapses,” Blackadder said. “You have got to make those tackles, you just have to.”
With Stade level, the wheels were wobbling for Bath and they duly came off as Ford’s shortened restart was recovered by the home team. As they worked their way towards the 22, referee John Lacey awarded a penalty but that proved unnecessary as Plisson struck a beautiful drop goal.
There were still a few seconds left on the clock. This time the shortened restart was claimed by Matt Garvey. Bath went right and Watson and Rokoduguni seemed certain to score but Stade held out temporarily. “With Ant and Rocco, the execution should have been straight under the bar and try time,” Blackadder said. There proved one final opportunity from the tee, but Ford’s effort drifted right.