Bath may do it yet. The West Countrymen just about found their way past a profoundly committed Northampton side at the Recreation Ground last night, Olly Barkley sliding a penalty just inside the left-hand post at the last knockings to keep his side in the hunt for a Premiership semi-final. The grand plan might easily have gone pop, however. Had Shane Geraghty succeeded with an even later drop goal attempt from centre field, there would have been no victory and no place in the play-offs.
Northampton may have travelled light – of their undisputed first-choicers, only Jon Clarke, Bruce Reihana and Neil Best started the game – but if Bath expected a joy ride, they found themselves abandoning the notion almost immediately. Forget the Midlanders' recent Heineken Cup quarter-final suffocation by Munster in Limerick: precious few teams have the wherewithal to prosper there. At Premiership level they are plenty tough enough, as they showed at set-piece and breakdown throughout the opening half-hour.
Regardt Dreyer gave David Wilson, one of two tight-head props competing for the England position ahead of next year's World Cup, every last drop of trouble he could handle at the scrum. The visitors also had a busy blind-side flanker in Mark Easter, a lively playmaking outside-half in Geraghty and, most valuable of all, an absolute workhorse of a lock in the grand Argentine international Ignacio Fernandez Lobbe. While Northampton were in the ascendant, the 35-year-old Puma was hitting rucks with a rare relish and carrying the ball effectively at close-quarters.
Indeed, he handled twice in the opening try, scored after an early penalty exchange between Geraghty and Barkley. Clarke's brave recovery work at an attacking line-out allowed the Saints to move the ball left via Fernandez Lobbe to Reihana, then switch it back right via the same conduit to Paul Diggin, who scored on the overlap from Barry Everitt's floated pass.
All this occurred while Nicky Little, in at stand-off for Bath in the absence of the injured Butch James, was spending 10 minutes back out of it. The Fijian was sent to the cooler after horizontalising Alan Dickens with what might be called a South Seas special of a high tackle. Geraghty hooked the ensuing penalty and also failed to convert Diggin's try. Had he been more accurate, the visitors would have led at the break.
As it was, Bath, who had only a second Barkley penalty to show for their increasingly urgent efforts, turned the tables late in the half – two minutes into stoppage time, in fact. Brett Sharman's defensive throw missed the Northampton line-out by some distance and gave the Bath flanker Julian Salvi a sight of the line. The Australian was held up millimetres short, but Lee Mears, so effective in these situations, put his hands on the ball and burrowed over to give his side an 11-8 advantage.
It promised to be a game-turner. Even though Geraghty levelled the scoreboard with a penalty on 46 minutes, the Bath forwards were in a different, wholly more aggressive mood in the second period. The West Countrymen laid siege to the Northampton line, and eventually forced their opponents to crack, Matt Banahan benefiting from the pressure with a try to the right of the sticks after a clever dummy run from Barkley.
Yet the visitors refused to succumb. Reinforced by the appearances of some top-of-the-bill acts off the bench – Soane Tonga'uiha, Euan Murray – they redoubled their efforts, not least through Best, and pulled themselves back to within a point through a brace of Geraghty penalties early in the final quarter. And when things turned again in the tight and the Bath front-rowers were penalised for standing up, Geraghty struck once more to regain the lead, only for Barkley to trump him three minutes from the end of normal time.
Bath: Tries Mears, Banahan; Conversion Barkley; Penalties Barkley 3. Northampton: Try Diggin. Penalties Geraghty 5.
Bath N Abendanon; M Stephenson (M Banahan, 46), S Hape (T Cheeseman, 73), O Barkley, J Maddock; N Little, M Claassens (capt); D Barnes (N Catt, 73), L Mears (P Dixon, 64), D Wilson (A Jarvis, 73), S Hooper, D Grewcock, B Skirving, J Salvi, L Watson (D Browne, 73).
Northampton B Everitt; P Diggin, J Ansbro, J Clarke (J Downey, 59), B Reihana; S Geraghty, A Dickens (L Dickson, 71); R Dreyer (S Tonga'uiha, 59), B Sharman (A Long, 64), B Mujati (E Murray, 59), I Fernandez Lobbe (J Kruger, 61), J Cannon (Kruger, 49-57), M Easter, N Best, M Hopley (R Wilson, 71).
Referee J P Doyle (London West).