special occasion, and more often than not it was the great Bath side of the time who would end it victorious.
Jack Rowell’s band of driven men had won all their six matches at HQ on the big day as they approached the 1992 renewal, having sealed the English league title for the third time in four seasons. At that stage, the Double had only been completed once before.
It was Cup-holders Harlequins who stood in their way. The Londoners had beaten Northampton after extra time in 1991 and were bidding to become the fifth club to successfully defend the trophy. Eight of that side were back, including Will Carling, Brian Moore, a former Bath centre in the shape of Simon Halliday and skipper Peter Winterbottom. All four had been part of England’s 1992 Grand Slam side; Bath had provided only Jonathan Webb and Jeremy Guscott in the starting XVs.
But, whereas Quins had been expected to triumph the previous season, this time they were underdogs against imperious Bath.
Webb says: “Quins were unpredictable. They were a good Cup side, but didn’t seem to have the bottle for the league. They raised their game for one-offs. There was no complacency on our side. We had this great Cup final record but with that came pressure; the pressure not to be the one that loses. The mind always finds a way to turn a strength into a weakness!”
Bath’s position as favourites was hardened during the build-up as Quins were denied the services of Mickey Skinner and the late Richard Langhorn. Former England lock Paul Ackford was brought back from retirement due to the injury crisis. Quins crossed the A316 in hope rather than expectation.
“When we heard that Ackford was playing it gave us a boost,” Webb admits. “He was such a great player but to come back out of retirement for a Cup final … we thought he would blow up after 10 minutes. How wrong we were.” Ackford would be a titan at the lineout.
Bath’s route to Twickenham was hardly the serene procession hinted at by a 52-0 thrashing of Nottingham in the first round. There was a bout of extra time at Northampton, a tough derby quarter-final win at Bristol and then another overtime triumph at Kingsholm.
“Gloucester always said that we were so lucky winning in the last few minutes but that’s what it’s all about,” adds Webb. “It’s a tug o’ war, which just needs an incremental increase for one side or the other to make the difference.”
Bath had annihilated Gloucester 48-6 in their previous Cup final triumph two years before but this was predicted to be a whole lot closer, based on the league meeting at the Stoop, from where Bath had escaped with a draw from 18-0 down thanks to Webb’s last-kick conversion. How painful Bath were to Quins that season – this one would also go to the wire.
Unlike the current era there was no great groundswell of support for Quins, they were the well-connected team of the establishment followed by just the apocryphal band of committee men from across the road. A Cup final brought a few more followers out of the woodwork but the ‘home’ side were hugely outnumbered in the 53,000 crowd at a ground being redeveloped. A familiar huge blue and white army had come from the West Country.
“At that time only Leicester and Bath could sell out Twickenham. Our support was incredible,” says Bath prop Victor Ubogu, who was beginning to make a name for himself and would be handed his England debut later that year.
There was the added carrot for Ubogu and Co of former team-mate Halliday lining up in the multi-coloured shirt.
Halliday had played alongside nine of that day’s Bath team in the 1990 Cup final. He had been expected to retire but, having secured a job in the City, he was offered the chance to play for Quins. He was going for a third straight winners’ medal and clearly riled his old mates.
“He jumped ship, got a job in London and joined them. It was an issue as we were such a tight unit at Bath with so many strong characters,” says Ubogu.
Stuart Barnes was one of the strongest of those characters. The fly-half was still exiled from the England team, with Rob Andrew preferred, but at club level there was no-one better. He had led Bath to the Double in 1989 and the Cup in 1990 before ceding the captaincy. It was Andy Robinson who led them into battle but Barnes was one of his key lieutenants.
“Barnesy came across to the club from the dark side (Bristol) and, to a certain extent, our style of play was based around him,” says Martin Haag, the newly appointed Nottingham head coach. “He was a massive part of the jigsaw. He could take the ball flat, drop back, had a bit of pace and a very good kicking game.
“He would pick his words, he wasn’t a shouter. He was intellectual and read the game so well.”
Quins dominated early on, Ackford belying his lack of match practice and presumed fitness with an expert display. Webb and David Pears traded penalties before Winterbottom crashed over for the first try of the game.
“Winters was a fearsome opponent – one of the first names I’d have put on an England team sheet. He could destroy your game,” recalls Webb. Ubogu prefers to remember a small personal victory against the hugely respected openside: “Winters was such a great competitor but a fond memory I have of that match was dumping him on his backside around a ruck! He was a hard man and it was a special moment for me.”
Ubogu’s efforts could not prevent Quins from asserting themselves. Pears nudged them 12-3 ahead and it was being whispered that the amazing Bath run of big-match victories could be coming to a close.
Webb admits: “We were being mullered up front, our pack were on the back foot and we were living off scraps.”
Haag adds: “Ackford was outstanding. Myself and Ollie (Nigel) Redman got a bit of ribbing on the bus back … we’d won but the lads reckoned we only took one lineout all day. Quins played well, it was a tough game for us on a hot day.”
What sets certain teams apart, though, is an unwillingness to take the foot off the gas – to hammer home an advantage. Bath had done just that against Gloucester in 1990 from a similar position, but Quins chose to protect their position rather than press on. A big mistake.
Barnes began to pull the strings as Quins kicked ball away and gradually the initiative changed.
“We played in a team in that period with so many players in various positions who were leaders,” explains Ubogu. “However tight it got in a game someone would pull something out. Whether it be Jerry Guscott making a break, Barnesy, one of the back row or even guys like me in the front row running around someone would do something magical.”
“We had a great belief, some would say arrogance, that we’d find a way,” agrees Webb. “Out of all the teams I played in that 1991/92 Bath side was the best at doing that.”
Webb landed a penalty on the hour after a high Halliday tackle on Tony Swift. The pressure was beginning to tell and for the first time in the match, as it entered its final quarter, Bath were on top.
Barnes was upping the ante, sensing that it was the time to strike. “That team had a lot of great people who would not take a backward step and also had that confidence in their own ability,” Ubogu adds. “Barnesy was a great communicator – although often I couldn’t hear those communications due to where I was – and him and Hilly (scrum-half Richard Hill) were a great combination, making decisions and urging us on. No one was going to argue with them.”
With 10 minutes to go future Bath and England leader Phil de Glanville struck a crucial blow with what would be his side’s only try of the afternoon. At 10-12 down, Webb had the chance to level the score. But it was far from easy.
“It was one of the best pressure kicks I ever scored,” he says. “That was a kick to nothing. It is always harder to kick a goal to level rather than win a game; mentally it is a different approach. You know that if you miss it could be your last chance. It was between the 22 and the five-metre line – makeable but also missable.”
Webb, who had notched 67 points in England’s Grand Slam campaign, was at the peak of his powers and the ball arrowed through. The massed Bath fans cheered to the echo but the match had not been won. With impressive fortitude Quins mounted a fierce assault. They were repelled and for the second successive year English rugby’s domestic showpiece went to extra time.
“That period of extra time seemed to go on for an eternity,” says Webb. Conventional wisdom states that it is the team who have come from behind to set up the added time who get a boost but on this occasion Quins turned that theory on its head as they continued to batter for an opening.
The bodies were willing but thankfully, from Bath’s viewpoint, the minds appeared scrambled. Fly-half Paul Challinor and Pears attempted four drop-goals between them, all ended in failure.
Eventually Bath escaped into the opposition half and the Cup appeared to be on course to being shared for just the second time but, from a lineout in the last minute, Nigel Redman got the better of the not surprisingly tiring Ackford. Hill spirited the ball away to Barnes and an iconic moment in English club rugby history…
In a split second Barnes weighed up his options and elected to go for an unlikely drop goal from fully 40 metres out. “It had to be Barnesy…You wouldn’t bet on him kicking that drop-goal, you wouldn’t have backed him at all!” jokes Ubogu.
A lazy swing of the right boot propelled the ball towards the new North stand, referee Fred Howard followed it and raised his right arm to indicate three points. There was no time for Quins to respond, Bath had won 15-12, a seventh English Cup and second domestic double was theirs.
Webb says: “He (Barnes) would occasionally give the opposition hope by doing something daft but he scared the pants off you with what he could do. What he did then was absolutely typical of the man.”
The final whistle signalled the extremes of emotion – ecstasy for Bath, despair for Quins.
“I’d won the Grand Slam, the league and the Cup … apart from the World Cup disappointment it was the perfect campaign and I didn’t lose a club game all season. How do you celebrate? Do you jump up and down like an idiot like Guscott or do you just feel the relief – I did the latter.”
Andy Robinson walked up the stairs to receive the Cup, a Double-winning skipper in his first season in the job, and it was thanks to a piece of inspiration from his fly-half who, according to Ubogu, was not just content just to rub Quins’ noses in it on the pitch.
“I remember walking down towards the changing room and Barnesy diverting to the Quins room and shouting to Halliday, ‘I did that one for you, mate!’ That was a typical comment from him, the man we used to call ‘the poisoned dwarf!’
“Quins played very well. It was a hard-fought final but we were not prepared to lose. We just always seemed to be winning something each season and to win like that was the best way to win a final, and the worst way to lose.”
During the summer that Bath team began to break up. Wing Jim Fallon went to rugby league and the likes of Webb, Swift, Gareth Chilcott, Barnes and Hill would retire over the next few years.
Success briefly continued but soon dissipated as Bath looked way beyond the West Country in the new professional age. Webb maintains it was a huge error.
“The whole club was built on an ethos,” he says. “Jack Rowell said that it was down to the character of the people and that there was no money in the world that will make a player put his body on the line at Pontypridd in the wind and rain one night.
“Professional rugby was alien to me. When Bath brought Federico Mendez in it was an example of a completely misguided approach to what makes a side tick. It was a case of bringing someone in and trying to make him fit in rather than looking at what’s around you. It comes down to that ethos and some other clubs did it better.
“I was incredibly privileged to be allowed into it at Bath. The club was always more important than me.”
Bath: Webb, Swift, Guscott, De Glanville, Fallon, Barnes, Hill, Chilcott, Dawe, Ubogu, Ojomoh, Redman, Haag, Robinson, Clarke.
Harlequins: Pears, Wedderburn, Carling, Halliday, Davis, Challinor, Luxton, Hobley, Moore, Mullins, Russell, Ackford, Edwards, Winterbottom, Sheasby.
Comments are closed on this article.