Bath 6 Northampton 26

Bath Rugby 6 Northampton Saints 26 (31/03/2012)

I’ve never been a fan of rugby. I think it dates back to my schooldays, associating the sport with cold and wet Monday mornings, wishing I could be anywhere but on that miserable muddy school playing field, doing my best to fake participation in a sport I had no interest in.

Things didn’t improve as I got older. To many football fans, rugby suffers from an image problem, with the typical fan being portrayed as a plummy-voiced public schoolboy type, who’d grate within seconds of hearing their received pronunciation vowels.

Despite that, here in Bath, I was not only about to go to a rugby match, I was really looking forward to it.

There were two reasons for this. One was that I wanted to have a look round the city of Bath, one of the best preserved Georgian cities in the country. I’d been to Bath before, to see Reading play at Bath City’s Twerton Park many times, when the Bristol club were exiled there not so long ago. Twerton Park is well away from the centre though, and while the surrounding area is hardly the ugliest location for a football ground, it’s not exactly the area that brings thousands of tourists to the city.

The other reason is Bath’s ground, “The Rec”. It’s no amazing stadium, but if any ground in the country has a more attractive location, I can’t think of it. Just across the river from Bath Abbey, reached by crossing the 18th Century Pulteney Bridge, it’s surrounded either by parks or historic buildings, creating an ambience as far removed from a modern identikit stadium as you could get. If you placed the same ground in some edge-of-town retail park, it’d be pretty dispiriting, just as it is for football, and would get slated as a cheap temporary ground. Where it is though, it just works.

The oldest part of the ground, currently renamed the Wadworth 6X Stand, runs alongside the River Avon, spanning around two-thirds of one side. Originally having just eight rows of seats, this stand has been extended forward with another ten or so rows, only a few of which are covered by the flat propped roof. A tv gantry and press box slung below the roof probably do little to aid the view of those at the back.

Alongside this stand, to the right as seen from inside, is a covered temporary seated stand, going by the name “Ringside 2”. To the left is a small open terrace, with some open seats in front of it.

To the right, behind the goal, is a stand like petite posh version of the old Clock End at Highbury. Two stories of hospitality boxes, shielded from the elements by white tent style roofs, sit above a few rows of shallow seats. The more affluent nature of rugby supposed clientele might explain why the relative poor view these offer can still command prices up to £46 a go.

Opposite is a large temporary stand, with around 6000 dark green seats. This structure, only allowed to be erected during the rugby season due to The Rec being a public recreation ground, is uncovered, but offers the best view of the city centre beyond the main stand.

To the left is an open terrace holding perhaps 1500. This is another temporary structure, and does really look like it in parts, although the view from the back is decent enough. Behind here is the large clubhouse and bar, where fans mill about pre-match. Loads wore fancy dress, but doing so elicited no response from most people, as if having fans watching the game in laurel wreaths dressed as Romans is the most natural thing in the world.

To be honest I didn’t totally believe the “rugby fan” stereotype, although going to rugby did feel slightly like being tempted over to the dark side. It evoked visions of entering the rugby-watching world, where I become someone who spent Sundays playing golf with a guy called Gerald and have a glass of wine at half time.

Of course it wasn’t like that at all. I didn’t go up to the tea bar and find the prices were listed in guineas. I don’t think I even heard a single “posh” accent. What I did notice was just how much more relaxed everything was. I’d seen Northampton fans (and even a  couple of players) on the Bath tourist trail earlier in the day. I’d seen many fans drinking in bars, both in the city and around The Rec. But there was no sense of fans getting tanked up or confrontational. I don’t think there was any police presence at the game or in the area, and just no sense that one could possibly be needed. It was just very relaxed, with everyone there to have a good time, whatever the result.

It possibly helped that these were real rugby people, not just types that latched onto England during moments of glory, singing “Swing Low” with all the hand gestures, which typically merit hand gestures of a different kind from anyone else who can see them. These were just ordinary people in a town where the rugby club’s success far outstripped the football team.

And having only heard tv pundits’ polite platitudes before concerning rugby, it was interesting to hear a few more “honest” opinions. The matchday programme was liberally sprinkled with references to bad luck, nearlies, and oh-so-closes. The terrace comments told a different tale, of sloppy play, poor organisation, and the resigned dissatisfaction in a disappointing season coming to an end. That this game would be Bath’s heaviest league defeat of the season hardly helped matters.

In fact moans started direct from the kick off. I’ve known a few “glass half empty” fans in my time watching football, but I’ve never seen anyone moan about the very first kick of the game before. This one though saw Bath concede possession poorly, and it really set the tone for the game.

I can’t really talk about the match in detail. Most of the points in any rugby match seem to be scored from penalties, and I’ve never been able to fathom the infringements which lead to a penalty. Every so often bodies from both teams collapse in a heap on the ball, and sometimes this is fine, and other times it’s a penalty. Even from the replays on the giant screen to my left, I was none the wiser.

Mind you, as much of a rugby novice that I was, it wasn’t hard to see that Northampton passed the ball far better than Bath did. and when the ball was kicked long for territory, Northampton kicked into a space that allowed a chase, while Bath seem to just kick it anywhere, resulting normally in an easy take for Northampton.

The game started with the home side under serious pressure, forced back to near their own try line. A long series of scrums eventually resulted in some Bath infringement which allowed the referee to award a penalty try. With that converted, and a penalty also kicked over soon after, Bath were 0-10 down without even threatening to score themselves.

Bath managed to pull back to 6-10 with two penalties of their own, after getting back into the game, but other was missed. It would have made it just a 1 point deficit shortly before half-time, but Northampton made them pay, with another penalty and a drop goal before the break, to make it 6-16.

Early in the second half, another Bath penalty miss, and two more “nearlies”, with one attempted try being ruled out for not making the line, and another disallowed for an earlier infringement, meant that the gap stayed at 10 points.

Yet another missed penalty seemed to break the back of the home resistance, and Northampton took the ball to the other end and got one of their own. If the fat lady was starting to sing with the score at 6-19, she was doing an encore medley with 15 minutes left, when Northampton powered over the line to record their second try. 6-26. It really was game over, and just a case of seeing what the final margin would be.

However disgruntled fans may have been from this very disappointing game, there was no booing or anger that you might get at football. The Northampton renditions of “when the saints go marching in” provoked no response bar one fan who’d had a little too much to drink. He did get gently reminded that he “wasn’t at the football” and it has to be said he didn’t really look angry at all. In any case, it’s hard to really envisage anyone causing crowd trouble while dressed in a toga.

While some fans did leave early, many others saw this premature end of the game as a chance to head for the bar rather than the car. With them returning to the terraces with pints, or sometimes double-sized pints of beer, they were clearly happy to stay and enjoy the evening.

Even a few pitch invaders were regarded with a “grr….you little scalliwag” kind of approach from the stewards. One other toga-clad fan, who decided to join the Northampton players on the pitch in their post-match warm-down, was only removed with polite persuading, rather than the headlock he’d have got at a football ground.

Having never been anywhere else it’s hard to tell if the Bath experience is normal or unique. What does seem clear is that rugby at Bath isn’t just about the game. It’s the stroll through the historic centre, having a beer and a meal in the city pubs and bars, the walk to the ground beside the river or over Pulteney Bridge, meeting up with friends in the bar, before settling back to watch the game, surrounded on all sides by handsome Georgian limestone buildings. I may not be a rugby fan, and I can’t imagine watching the Irish at the Madejski being in any way similar, but for a social and sporting occasion, a game at The Rec is hard to beat.

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