Rugby Union: Bath's old guard run out of steam

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The Independent Online
Northampton 16

Bath 15

WITH Europe fast fading from the horizon for the English clubs unless, that is, their negotiators have capitulated totally to the Rugby Football Union, there was not much to play for at Franklins Gardens yesterday. Not that you would have known it from the amount of energy and passion expended in the pursuit of victory and two points. Despite the fact that much of it was fruitless, it was none the less an enjoyable romp played at a furious pace.

At their best Northampton are excellent value. They recycle the ball faster than any side in the League and their desire to keep the ball moving through the hands is admirable. It is their failure to have their supporting runners in the right place and at the right time which so often cost them dear. In their defence it is not always the easiest thing to predict where and when to pick up the threads of Gregor Townsend's running. Not even the player himself knows where he will be or when he will get there.

Yesterday his play veered between the mildly ridiculous and the wildly sublime. He missed touch with breathtaking frequency and even with the wind at his back in the first half he was hard-pressed to propel his kickoffs the required 10 metres. Against that he made more clean breaks than Jimmy White, one of them leading to Jonathan Bell's first-half try which admittedly also required the help of Andy Northey and Shem Tatupu.

Yet for all their first-half pressure and possession, Northampton could easily have lost this match and went into the interval just three points ahead, Matt Dawson's two penalties and the conversion of Bell's try being set against Andy Nicol's try for Bath after he had taken a quick penalty close to the Northampton line and a penalty and a conversion by Jonathan Callard.

This represented a triumph of sorts for Bath who had played for much of the time without the ball but who had made the most of the limited opportunities to come their way. A good example of that was Callard's penalty which followed a yellow card for Martin Hynes' illegal tackle on Nigel Redman in the line-out and Northampton's failure to retire 10 metres. This brought the posts into kicking range and Callard duly converted the penalty.

The pace never slackened in the second half but as the play hurtled sometimes uncontrollably from one end to the other so did the referee's grasp of the game. There were some very puzzled faces out there, tempers became frayed and Victor Ugobu was the second player to receive the yellow card, a transgression suitably punished by Dawson who kicked his third penalty.

Crucially though, Northampton lost their concentration at a line out to which they had the throw. With all possible haste the ball was shipped out to Adedayo Adebayo who hurtled into the corner for the try.

Even more ominously for Northampton. Jeremy Guscott, who had scarcely touched the ball in the first half, was coming into the game more frequently and with greater urgency. His darts and delicate touches opened up some promising gaps but uncharacteristically Bath were unable to profit from them. They were tiring visibly, their old guard in the pack looking as if they were fighting one battle too far.

It took a mighty tackle by Ieuan Evans to take out Townsend but Northampton settled into the left-hand corner applying intense pressure and all the while draining the last drops of energy from the Bath forwards, a number of whom cannot surely be asked to carry this side through another League campaign next season. They mounted one final attack in injury time but the days when Bath could snatch victory from the jaws of defeat are long gone.

Northampton: I Hunter; C Moir, J Bell, A Northey, J Sleightholme; G Townsend, M Dawson (capt); M Volland (C Allen, 35-40), C Johnson (A Clarke, 66), M Hynes, J Phillips, J Chandler, S Tatupu, B Pountney, G Seely.

Bath: J Callard; I Evans, D de Glanville (M Perry 54), J Guscott, A Adebayo; R Butland, A Nicol (capt); D Hilton, M Regan, V Ubogu, M Haag, N Redman, R Earnshaw, N Thomas, R Bryan.

Referee: C White (Gloucester).

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