Muir secures Bath an exciting win over Racing 92, securing them a spot in the last-16.
On a beautiful winter day, a delicious competition between England and France served as a reminder that the Six Nations is not the only exciting rugby event. After the game, Bath was ecstatic to secure a spot in the Champions Cup last 16 and maintain their unbeaten record in pool two with their third consecutive win.
In talks to acquire former England captain Owen Farrell from Saracens, Racing had comfortably taken a 22-8 lead thanks to tries from their imposing No 8 Kitione Kamikamica and their sidelined English winger Henry Arundell. However, in a back-and-forth, fast-paced match, Bath fought back to tie the game at 22-22 with 17 minutes remaining thanks to tries from Alfie Barbeary and Joe Cokanasiga. It wasn’t until Will Muir’s 72nd-minute try that the hosts were able to secure a dramatic victory.
Despite the unfortunate timing of Barbeary’s second yellow card and the upcoming announcement of the England Six Nations squad on Wednesday, Racing was unable to come back from their late dismissal. While Paris is eager to secure Farrell for the next season, Bath, with Finn Russell leading the way at fly-half, showed more strength and determination when it counted.
The partnership of Russell and Barbeary has brought a new level of energy to a team that was struggling before. They have helped the team qualify for the knockout stages of the competition, something they haven’t achieved since 2015. Barbeary, at 23 years old, proved that French loose forwards are not the only ones capable of fierce aggression on the field. Meanwhile, Russell handled defensive challenges well, despite being targeted by his former team.
Barbeary’s pair of cards, however, were both for facing challenges head on, one with and one without possession of the ball. However, his aggressive and skillful approach in attacking will inevitably lead to him earning a spot in Steve Borthwick’s squad. “When I brought him on board, I told him ‘You have the potential to become the top ball carrier in European rugby,” stated Johann van Graan, director of rugby for Bath. “He is a exceptional player and a prominent figure in our team. I was impressed with his carrying abilities… after taking a break, he has returned in top form.”
After observing his Racing team struggle against Barbeary’s dynamic performance, Stuart Lancaster was also impressed. He noted that the young player is exceptionally strong and although many considered him to be a hooker, he has proven to be a skilled number 8. Lancaster believes he has a lot of potential.
Van Graan was understandably pleased with how his team fought back and handed Racing their third consecutive loss in the tournament. Ben Spencer had a strong performance at scrum-half, and Cameron Redpath showcased his talents alongside fellow Scotsman Finn Russell.
The guests arrived with the understanding that they must win in order to maintain control of their qualification chances. However, even with Siya Kolisi, the winning captain of the World Cup for South Africa, the top leaders of the Top 14 were unable to consistently meet the expectations of this important event.
Bath’s dominant scrummaging played a major role in their success, as Racing’s loosehead prop Hassane Kolingar gave away three penalties in the first quarter alone. Despite this, Racing managed to score a try in the 18th minute thanks to Nolann Le Garrec, who also converted and kicked a penalty to give them a 10-8 lead at halftime. However, Bath’s momentum was hindered when their player Barbeary was sent to the sin-bin for making contact with Racing’s full-back Max Spring’s head.
Although Bath earned their well-deserved try in the first half, thanks to Thomas du Toit’s powerful surge from close range, they were also lucky that Arundell, a former Bath fan, did not perform at his best and missed two clear chances to score tries. These missed opportunities would ultimately have consequences in the end.
However, Racing was the team that began the second half with a faster pace. Bath had neglected to cover a large area on their right side, allowing Antoine Gibert to make a cross-kick that led to Kamikamica scoring. Arundell then scored on the other wing after Le Garrec and Maxime Baudonne’s clever play from the blindside, putting Bath in a difficult position.
The task only motivated them further. Barbeary’s try in the 59th minute energized the audience, and shortly after, a skilled backdoor pass from Ollie Lawrence and a clever flick from Russell assisted in Cokanisaga’s try in the corner. The excitement didn’t end there, as strong runs from Barbeary and Lawrence led to Muir scoring the crucial bonus-point.
Despite Barbeary’s early exit from the match due to a forearm incident with Le Garrec, Racing still had opportunities to win. However, they now need to win against Cardiff and hope for a big loss from Ulster against Harlequins in order to advance. Bath’s final pool game will be against Toulouse, and Van Graan is optimistic that Barbeary will be cleared by the disciplinary panel this week. “He was disappointed when he was taken off, but we are hoping he will be able to play next weekend since it was only two yellow cards. We are hopeful that he will be able to participate.”