Rugby Union: Bath decide to get serious at Saints' expense

Bath 26 Northampton 3
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The panto season is with us and for all but the last frantic 10 minutes its spirits seemed to permeate play at the Recreation Ground yesterday. Until this last period, slapstick had been the favoured mode, not least when Bath decided to punt the ball backwards from one wing to the other, with the recipient, Adedayo Adebayo, so baffled by the move he could do little but walk the ball into touch.

It was typical of the game until the home side finally decided on a more serious approach and scored a couple of tries. First, the flanker Russell Earnshaw went over after the rangy American No 8 had outpaced the Saints defence. The second try came when the Bath captain, Andy Nicol, crossed. Both tries were converted by Jon Callard to add to his four penalties.

Before the game, the Bath coach, Andy Robinson, had said it was a match that had to be won, and won in style. In the end, he had his way but for much of the game the style simply was not there.

For more than an hour, Northampton had matched Bath in spirit and skill, only conceding the lead through Callard's penalties. Their own not-so- secret weapon, Paul Grayson, had kicked only one penalty because Bath wisely decided to deny him the opportunities.

If there was a turning point, it was in the middle of the second half when Northampton, rampaging forward, won a penalty five metres in front of the posts and opted to run instead of kick. They then discovered exactly how unbreakable the Bath defence was and from then on they must have realised that victory was beyond them.

Bath looked underwhelming but still retained enough of their old method and class to withstand the buffeting. Mike Catt, in the centre, was impressive in defence and attack, sending down long, ground- devouring kicks to set Northampton back when they were in good attacking positions.

Despite the defeat, Northampton still looked a side transformed from the one that started the season. The beef was there yesterday, not least in the shape of the big Springbok prop Garry Pagel.

But there was also a steel present that was missing earlier. It is a long time since Northampton looked as fierce in the front five as Bath but so it was yesterday: the Saints continually battered away in what used to be called "true Bath style". The second rows Jon Phillips and Jason Chandler loomed large.

The difficulty for the Saints coach, Ian McGeechan, is that all this effort and all this money on imports such as Jon Sleightholme from Bath still was not enough to do the trick. Gregor Townsend, in the centre, had a good day, conjuring the occasional moment of unpredictable magic from nothing. However, in the face of a defence such as Bath's his efforts were doomed to fail.

The difficulty for Northampton - and the joy for Bath - is that in professional rugby success breeds money, and money breeds more success. Bath may look unlikely to win the league but the European Cup awaits them. For Northampton, the question is how can a small town produce big-money rugby?

Bath: Tries Earnshaw, Nicol. Conversions Callard 2. Penalties Callard 4. Northampton: Penalty Grayson.

Bath: J Callard; I Evans, P de Glanville, M Catt, A Adebayo; R Butland (M Perry, 70), A Nicol (capt); K Yates (J Mallett, 45), M Regan, V Ubogu, G Llaens, N Redman, R Earnshaw, R Webster (E Peters, 72), D Lyle.

Northampton: J Bell; J Sleightholme, G Townsend, A Northey, H Thorneycroft; P Grayson (I Hunter, 80), J Bramhall; G Pagel, A Clarke, M Stewart, J Phillips, J Chandler, D Mackinnon (M Volland, 75), D Pountney, T Rodber (capt).

Referee: R Hughes (Manchester).