Rugby Union: Webster and Bath wounded

Bath 9 Northampton 15
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The Independent Online
THE SAINTS go marching on and in their slipstream yesterday they left a club who are showing serious signs of vulnerability. It is, perhaps, too early to talk of the rise and fall of the Bath empire but the fortress is under siege.

The statistics alone point to a shift in power. This was Bath's fourth successive defeat in the Allied Dunbar Premiership; it was Northampton's eighth victory out of their last nine games and their first win at the Recreation Ground in 23 years.

Northampton, with money, the personnel and the Lions' coach Ian McGeechan, have been perennial under-achievers prior to this season but finally they seem to have the confidence and resolution not only to pull off a potentially priceless victory at Bath, but to challenge their mighty Midlands neighbours Leicester. Nothing went right for Bath yesterday but their aura of impregnability has been broken. And it doesn't get any easier. Next week they play Saracens.

Played in a mud bath, this was a desperately hard match, highlighted by some momentous forward play, notably from Dan Lyle, Victor Ubogu and Pat Lam, and magnificent tackling. It needed highlights, for the floodlights are so anaemic they would struggle to illuminate a Christmas tree.

In the professional game you would have thought the spectator would be king, but to make matters of identification even worse, both sides wore dark colours. What Brian Ashton made of it all is anybody's guess. The former Bath coach was at the Recreation Ground in his capacity as the England backs coach but when he arrived, his old club did not give him a ticket for the covered stand but the rain-lashed terracing. Bad PR.

Northampton made the perfect start, going 7-0 up in the fifth minute. Spurning kicks at goal, Paul Grayson twice put the Saints within feet of the Bath line. When Lam's drive was held, Matt Dawson, the goalkicking hero of England's victory over South Africa, provided his other party piece, going over unopposed at the posts.

First blood to Northampton; and second blood. In the 12th minute Richard Webster, the Bath captain, took a head punch from Garry Pagel and went off for a dose of smelling salts. By the time he had returned eight minutes later, Mike Catt had cut the deficit to one point with two penalties. However, Webster's comeback lasted only seconds. When the physio held up three fingers, Webster couldn't see the hand. It was not surprising. The flanker suffered a fractured eye socket and will see a specialist on Tuesday. "I don't know what happened," Webster said. "I'll talk about the game but not about the incident." Andy Robinson, the Bath coach, was also non-committal. "I can't comment until I see the video," Robinson said.

Grayson landed a penalty but towards the end of the first half Bath began to look more like their old selves. A great tackle by Matt Allen denied Catt a try and then the Bath stand-off floated a long pass to Ieuan Evans, but he failed to hold it with the line at his mercy.

Trailing 10-6 at half-time, Bath proceeded to put Northampton under the severest pressure. Encamped in their opponent's 22, Bath gambled everything but the Saints defence was water-tight. After declining to kick three times from handsome positions, Catt, to ironic applause, finally elected to kick a penalty in the 63rd minute to reduce the margin to one point.

Having thrown everything at Northampton, Bath were then floored by a sucker punch. On their first incursion into Bath territory, Northampton made a mess of a line-out, a Bath hand tapped the ball back over their own line and the first player to pounce on it was the Saints' flanker Budge Pountney.

Bath: I Balshaw; I Evans, K Maggs, J Guscott, A Adebayo; M Catt, S Hatley (A Nicol, 40); D Hilton, M Regan (A Long, 40), V Ubogu, N Redman, B Sturnham, R Earnshaw, D Lyle, R Webster (capt; E Peters, 22).

Northampton: N Beal; C Moir, A Blyth, M Allen, J Sleightholme; P Grayson, M Dawson; G Pagel, F Mendez, M Stewart, R Metcalfe, T Rodber (capt), G Seely, P Lam, B Pountney.

Referee: E Morrison (Bristol)