Catt puts Saints to rest

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The Independent Online

If Northampton's season is not yet in meltdown, too many of their key players are perilously close to burnout. A punishing schedule of three games in the last six days has had a debilitating effect on them and has all but wrecked their chances of winning the Allied Dunbar Premiership. But much more worrying is the damage the current slippage in form will do to their chances of taking anything from a season which had promised so much.

If Northampton's season is not yet in meltdown, too many of their key players are perilously close to burnout. A punishing schedule of three games in the last six days has had a debilitating effect on them and has all but wrecked their chances of winning the Allied Dunbar Premiership. But much more worrying is the damage the current slippage in form will do to their chances of taking anything from a season which had promised so much.

So often in cases like this, the slide, once it starts, is irreversible. Forced by injury and illness to field a much-weakened side against Bath, who are peaking at just the right time, Northampton, despite the scoreline, never came close to victory.

From the start, and apart from a spell early in the second half, it was an unremittingly one-sided contest. The outrageous good fortune which propelled Northampton into the last four of the Heineken Cup at Wasps' expense a week ago deserted them yesterday. Not even the teeming rain which fell throughout the opening quarter came to their aid as Bath, brimful of zest and invention, continued to play their dry-weather game to good effect.

Their speed and accuracy behind a scrum which occasionally wobbled under pressure was in contrast to the incoherence and uncertainty of Northampton's fitful attacks. Playing Paul Grayson at full-back was not a success. It is a difficult enough position for a specialist to occupy but in the grizzly conditions yesterday it was well nigh impossible.

Mike Catt sensed the weakness early on and proceeded to bombard Grayson with a series of wickedly placed up-and-unders. Grayson's switch back to his accustomed position at fly-half was only a matter of time.

By then, however, Bath were 10 points ahead from a penalty by Jon Preston and a lovely try by Iain Balshaw, whose speed, ball control and athleticism on the wing once again marked him out as a player of enormous potential. His deft pick-up of Catt's shrewdly angled kick was near miraculous on such a saturated surface.

Saints' progress at this stage was, at best, sideways, and during one spell of continuous possession in midfield, was, for the most part, backwards. Grayson's penalty three minutes from half-time was scarcely deserved but clearly provided Northampton with something on which to build.

They began the second half with more purpose and with a plan which was to break Bath through their weakness in the scrummage. They drove towards the Bath line with a series of frenzied assaults and won a penalty close enough to the posts for Grayson to have a pop at goal. Instead, they opted for the scrummage, and following one failed attempt at the pushover which resulted in another penalty, they went for the second scrum. This time Pat Lam picked up and although he was tackled on the line, Dan Lyle was penalised for lying on the ball and Steve Lander awarded a penalty try.

With the scores level, Northampton were back in the game but, almost immediately, Grayson, taking his eye off the ball, lost control five metres from his line. From the scrum, Catt, with Kevin Maggs the decoy, sliced straight through Northampton's bemused defence to score under the posts. It was the killer blow.

Grayson kicked his second penalty but a second try was never really within Saints' reach. And so, in the time-honoured phrase of damage limitation in such circumstances, Northampton are now free to concentrate on the two cup competitions.

Northampton: P Grayson; C Moir, N Beal, M Allen, B Cohen; A Hepher (A Northey, 22), D Malone; G Pagel, F Mendez, M Stewart (M Scelzo, 74), A Newman (J Phillips, 66), T Rodber, D Mackinnon, S Holmes, P Lam (capt)( C Allan, 84).

Bath: M Perry; I Balshaw, K Maggs, M Tindall (P de Glanville, 77), A Adebayo; M Catt, J Preston; V Ubogu, M Regan, J Mallett (C Horsmann, 55), M Haag, S Borthwick, A Gardiner (G Thomas, 67), B Clarke (capt), D Lyle (B Sturnham, 57).

Referee: S Lander (RFU).

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