George Ford, the button-bright England playmaker, might have won the Amlin Challenge Cup for Bath in front of a boisterous audience at Cardiff Arms Park last night, but he missed his kicks at crucial moments. Stephen Myler? He missed nothing, apart from a late conversion attempt that bordered on the meaningless.
Tries deep in the final quarter from Phil Dowson and Ben Foden put a shine on the scoreline and were wildly celebrated, but it was the Northampton outside-half who made the crucial contribution.
Bath were one of European rugby’s pioneering acts long before Northampton were so much as a twinkle in the eye of the cross-border game: the West Countrymen won the Heineken Cup on a famous day in Bordeaux in 1998, some considerable time before the Midlanders had even found a way of qualifying for the elite competition, let alone prevailing in it.
But that high point was the beginning of a long and arduous descent. Apart from a Challenge Cup triumph seven years ago, there has been precious little cause for celebration.
All things considered, then, they wanted this one badly. Badly enough to throw Francois Louw, the high-calibre Springbok flanker, straight into the fray after two long months of injury hassle, and to run Ford against some of the most nakedly abrasive forwards in the land despite wall-to-wall reports of a serious shoulder condition urgently in need of surgery.
Ford may have been cut from the forthcoming red-rose tour of New Zealand for medical reasons, but he was feeling well enough to open the scoring with a penalty from 50-plus metres, awarded after Nick Abendanon, the Bath full-back, had suckered a couple of Northampton midfielders into infringing on the deck.
This was quickly cancelled out by Myler, however. Alex Corbisiero, the one Test Lion in the Saints pack, won a penalty call against the current England tight-head prop David Wilson at an early scrum to give his outside-half the easiest of equalising shots.
This was profoundly worrying for Bath. Even though Ford restored their lead with another penalty, Myler was able to respond when Corbisiero made a mess of the West Country front row for a second time.
There was more to come: when Wilson, forced to work overtime to protect his energetic but inexperienced hooker Tom Dunn, went into retreat for a third time, Northampton were able to lay siege and seemed certain to claim the opening try.
Instead, it went to the opposition, wholly against the run of things. As the Midlanders spread their attack through Foden to the right wing Ken Pisi, they met fierce resistance in the shape of Jonathan Joseph, who clamped onto the Samoan and drove him back before dumping him on the deck.
Pisi’s colleagues were now scrambling in retreat and when the ball bobbled out of the ruck, the ultra-quick Anthony Watson reacted a split-second ahead of everyone else and embarked on a 60-metre glory run to the line.
The half ended with what was at that point a rare Ford miscue. The 21-year-old had played beautifully, hurting Northampton with his finely-judged diagonal kicking from hand and frustrating them in equal measure by staying out of their clutches at close quarters, but he spurned an opportunity to open up a 10-point lead after Tom Wood, the Saints captain, had been spotted shoving Louw in the back as the predatory South African was eyeing what might have been a scoring pass from Wilson.
Did this unnerve the youngster? He seemed phlegmatic enough, but then, he generally does.
Suffice to say he fluffed two more kickable penalties in the 10 minutes after the break and with Myler hitting the spot with a mid-range effort after the Bath scrum-half Micky Young had been caught offside following a horizontal South Seas hit by George Pisi on the unsuspecting Abendanon, those misses had the smell of something costly about them.And Bath were fully aware of the reek.
As the second half unfolded, their game flirted with disintegration, not just at the set-pieces where they had always been under pressure, but in open field too. Ford’s dodgy off-load to Abendanon presented Myler with another three points; the powerful Northampton scrum resulted in three more. Ford pulled himself together to kick a goal on 65 minutes, but the Midlanders were still ahead by two.
Even worse, Bath lost Anthony Perenise, their substitute prop, to the sin bin as Northampton set up camp on the Bath line – the heat generated by their opponents’ claustrophobic breakdown work was really having its effect now – and it was from the resulting pressure that Dowson claimed the try that nailed it.
Foden then touched down at the last knockings following a thrilling length-of-the-field attack from Myler, George Pisi and Luther Burrell, but by that stage, the decision was already final.
Bath N Abendanon; S Rokoduguni, J Joseph, O Devoto (G Henson 63), A Watson (H Agulla 65); G Ford, M Young (P Stringer 47); P James (N Catt 56), T Dunn (E Guinazu 67), D Wilson (A Perenise 56, Wilon 79), S Hooper (capt), D Attwood, C Fearns, F Louw, L Houston (G Mercer 54).
Northampton B Foden; K Pisi (A Waller 51-52), G Pisi (T Stephenson 76), L Burrell (J Wilson 76), G North; S Myler, L Dickson (K Fotuali’i 67); A Corbisiero (Waller 59), M Haywood (R McMillan 74), T Mercey (G Denman 59), S Manoa (C Day 63), C Lawes, C Clark (P Dowson 67), T Wood (capt), S Dickinson.
Referee J Garces (France).