NORTHAMPTON could scarcely believe it. Prepared as the fatted calf for the prodigal Ben Clarke's return, they spent a good part of this game as a thoroughly unappetising bull. They dominated so much of the play, yet they were slaughtered in a contest which, in truth, they never looked like winning. Given far fewer chances, Bath took nearly every one of them and in so doing gave their opponents a thoroughly unpleasant afternoon. This despite Northampton's superiority in the scrum and, throughout most of the first half, in the loose, where their speed, close support and the slickness of their delivery from the rucks created any number of scoring opportunities.
Unfortunately for Northampton, that was where their advantage came to a shuddering halt. The decision-making behind the scrum was of a very low order, as was the ability of the midfield to show any glimmer of imagination against Bath's well-organised and enthusiastic defence.
When it came to taking chances, Bath were in a different class. If Jon Callard is now in the twilight of his career and is more of a rock than a rocket, his experience and know-how had a soothing effect on those around him. Not only that, but his tackle on Craig Moir at the end of a first half in which Northampton had enjoyed massive territorial advantage, saved a certain try and protected Bath's 10 point lead. In his goal-kicking, he was as secure as ever, striking the ball beautifully and contributing 18 points to the Bath total from four penalties and the conversion of all three tries.
Around him the youngsters gambolled and frolicked, making the most of Bath's meagre rations. Iain Balshaw's pace was a constant threat to Northampton and it was the right-wing who, with a juggler's skill, controlled Shaun Berne's pass to score the first try two minutes from half time. Unlike Northampton, it was Bath's alertness to the half-chance and their ability to make full use of it which created their scores.
Once Northampton have finished scratching their heads in bewilderment at this defeat, they will no doubt reach the conclusion that they will have to find some penetration in their midfield if they are to challenge the better sides this season. The commitment and industry of their back row and Garry Pagel's ability to drop anchor at the scrummage are not enough when they are being cut to pieces behind. Both Mike Tindall and Berne in the centre, although slight and slender by modern standards, were devastatingly effective at breaking the first rank of Northampton's defence, and caused a panic every time they received the ball.
In contrast, Northampton made the most awful hash of their best chances, one in particular in the second half when they wasted a three-man overlap through the inaccuracy of their passing. Northampton's chances of scoring were greatly jeopardised by the teeming rain which fell midway through the second half, but it did at least have the merit of persuading the forwards that, if Northampton were to score, it would be through the tight driving of the pack. They mounted a sustained assault on the opposition line, but then inexplicably released the ball to the backs. Ali Hepher lost possession, Tindall sprang on to the ball and, with Northampton fully committed, Moir and all, to attack, the Bath centre hurtled almost the length of the field to score. Callard's conversion put Bath comfortably out of reach and when, two minutes from time, Richard Metcalfe crashed over for Northampton's first try it was, we assumed, the last defiant gesture from a well-beaten side. Not so, the last word came from Bath and Berne, who charged down Matt Allen's attempted chip ahead, gathered the bounce and, despite slowing up to wave triumphantly to the crowd, made it to the line for Bath's third try.
Over the years Bath have made a virtue from their lack of height and weight up front. Nigel Redman is no longer gracing their pack, but Martin Haag, a pygmy in stature alongside some of the young mastodons who inhabit the modern game, is still plying his trade unsparingly in Bath's cause. It is around players like Haag, Clarke and Callard that Bath are nurturing, nourishing and building their side for the future. And on yesterday's evidence the future looks to be a promising one.
Bath: J Callard (capt); I Balshaw, M Tindall, S Berne, A Adebayo; J Preston, G Cooper; C Boyd, A Long, C Horsman (M Filipo, 78), M Haag, S Borthwick, G Thomas (B Sternham, 29), B Clarke, N Thomas.
Northampton: C Moir; J Sleightholme, A Northey (M Tucker, 62), M Allen, B Cohen; A Hepher, D Malone (J Bramhall, 62); G Pagel, S Walter (C Johnson, 71), M Stewart (M Volland, 58), R Metcalfe, J Phillips, D Mackinnon (capt), C Allan (S Hepher, 62), S Holmes.
Referee: B Campsall (Halifax)Reuse content