THE malfunction which appeared in Bath's supremely tuned machine at Gloucester last week, presumed to be temporary, may be more serious than we thought. Bath won all right, to maintain their position as favourites for yet another league title, but they were almost unrecognisable from the dominant force of recent weeks.
Seldom have they been reduced to such a stuttering rabble as at Bramley Road yesterday, and if Saracens had possessed an even moderately accurate goal-kicker they would have won comfortably.
Unfortunately Gareth Hughes, their fly-half and front-line kicker, had a wretched afternoon, missing four penalties, two dropped goals and a conversion. So a possible 20 points went down the pan and, despite their superiority in territory and possession, it was simply too much for Saracens to overcome. That, alas, has been the story of their season.
Serious as Saracens' plight is, Bath must be equally concerned as they approach the final run-in to another momentous season. Yesterday they had to rely on the dependable Jon Callard, who kicked three penalties, the last with the final kick of the match, and a conversion, plus one moment of individual brilliance by Mike Catt. His quick thinking and delicately- weighted chip into space bounced kindly and provided Graham Dawe, of all people, with his moment of glory. Dawe's try 11 minutes from the end restored Bath's lead and changed the course of a match which had been steadily turning against the league leaders since the opening quarter.
The Saracens' back row of Eddie Halvey, Richard Hill and Tony Diprose had played a mighty part in that transformation and it was entirely appropriate that two of them should have scored Saracens' second-half tries, Diprose from a short penalty close to the Bath line and Halvey from a pushover against Bath's disintegrating scrummage. Hughes' conversion of that try put Saracens into the lead for the first time.
The problem was that their strength was concentrated in too small an area. Their backs are defensively sound but carry little threat in attack. Contrast this with Bath, who in their only period of domination were 13 points ahead before Saracens had blinked. Callard kicked two penalties, the first for off-side, the second following a senseless assault on him by Kris Chesney. Then Bath scored a delightful try, Catt breaking inside his own half and feeding Phil de Glanville, who produced a perfect pass for Adedayo Adebayo to score.
At this stage Bath were irresistible, but so dramatic was the change in fortunes thereafter that by the end of the half the statistics revealed that Saracens had won 60 per cent of the territory and 53 per cent of the possession. And yet they had nothing to show for it.
Hughes had lined up three penalties and two dropped goals and had missed the lot, and when he failed with a fourth penalty attempt in front of the posts within five minutes of the restart the game, we thought, was as good as over.
Far from it. The Saracens' forwards refused to be disheartened. They retained their composure and if anything they managed to increase their pace, and they were pulverising Bath.
But if it wasn't good enough on the day to win the match it must surely be good enough to keep Saracens in the First Division next season.
Saracens: P Hughes; K Chesney, D Dooley, S Ravenscroft, P Harries; G Hughes, B Davies (capt); G Holmes, G Botterman, S Wilson, M Burrow, T Copsey, E Halvey, A Diprose, R Hill (J Green 5-9).
Bath: J Callard; J Sleightholme, P de Glanville (capt), A Adebayo, A Lumsden; M Catt, A Nicol; D Hilton (D Crompton 45), G Dawe, J Mallett, M Haag, N Redman, S Ojomoh, E. Peters, A Robinson. (E Pearce 52-55).
Referee: S Piercy (Yorkshire).