Bath make most of the maul

Bath 12 Northampton 3 Pilkington Cup: Saints earn sympathy but First Division leaders have power in reserve
IT WAS a day on which a collective judgement and individual assessment would have been as hazardous as the underfoot conditions at the Recreation Ground, but these two sides contrived to produce a game of rugby as good as any contest there has been all season. If the better side won, and that is by no means certain, it was largely because most of the crucial decisions went Bath's way. Furthermore, had Northampton kicked the early goals which were offered to them rather than dementedly running everything, the result might have been very different.

Nevertheless the fact that the Saints kept in touch from the first to almost the very last was mainly because of a wondrously robust and superbly well organised defence, which time and again repulsed Bath when they seemed certain to score.

Twice in the first half Northampton's line survived in the face of overwhelming odds. Once when Ben Clarke lost control of the ball in a tackle in the very act of scoring and again when Budge Pountney's telescopic arm scooped the ball from Simon Geoghegan's grasp after the winger had cut inside and seemingly had a clear run to the line. On other occasions, however, it was Bath's own poor decision-making that let them down. In the second half, when Clarke galloped clear with only Michael Dods to beat and flanked on either side by an eager supporting cast, the No8 chose to kick when a pass would surely have produced a try.

Yet there could be no doubt that Bath held sway in the key areas, notably the maul, which in the greasy conditions was a most potent weapon. Time and again they made dramatic territorial gains, rolling the opposition upfield and forcing them to concede penalties. Another important area of possession came, more surprisingly, from the line-out where those two wily campaigners Martin Haag and Nigel Redman took some vital ball. Bath also profited from their big men at the tail and from the fact that Graham Dawe's throwing in was a great deal more accurate than his opposite number's.

But it was impossible not to feel enormous sympathy for Northampton, the side who have been setting all manner of scoring records and in their combined play yesterday showed precisely why. The quality of their passing and running in the conditions surpassed all expectations. Yet it was their defence which sustained them. Gregor Townsend and Matt Allen, who have been cutting a swathe through opposition defences in the Second Division, did occasionally, if understandably, hang on to the ball a mite too long but as the game wore on they found a few gaps. They also contributed magnificently in the defensive chores as did the young half-backs Paul Grayson and Matt Dawson. Both worked tirelessly in support of their back row.

How often, though, have Bath shown themselves capable of absorbing intense pressure before delivering the decisive blows? With Northampton, trailing by just three points and with eight minutes left, beginning to find some enticing space, Bath had sufficient reserves of stamina to drive their opponents back. Twice Northampton infringed, although Ed Morrison's ruling on one occasion appeared harsh, and both times Jon Callard kicked the goals to give Bath the breathing space they had been seeking from the very first minute when Callard kicked the first of his four penalties.

At that stage it had seemed that Bath's speed behind the scrum, combined with the powerful driving of their forwards, might swamp Northampton. Again and again they swept down on the Saints' line but were miraculously kept out. Gradually the confidence returned to Northampton and Grayson equalised with a penalty. Callard's second penalty four minutes before half-time was a fair enough reflection of the play and the question was whether or not Northampton's defence could withstand another 40 minutes of the same.

It did, and the result was one of the most enjoyable games of the season so far. With it came a warning to all that although Northampton will have no further interest in the Cup they will add lustre at the higher level in all competitions next season.

Bath: J Callard; S Geoghegan, P de Glanville (capt), J Guscott, J Sleightholme; M Catt, I Sanders; D Hilton, G Dawe, V Ubogu, M Haag, N Redman, A Robinson, S Ojomoh, B Clarke.

Northampton: M Dods; H Thorneycroft, G Townsend, M Allen, C Moir; P Grayson, M Dawson; M Volland, T Beddow, M Hynes, J Phillips, M Bayfield, T Rodber (capt), B Pountney, G Seely.

Referee: E Morrison (Bristol).