It fell to George Ford, the fly-half who a few months ago was playing in a winning Premiership final for Leicester, to knock over the decisive points for Bath at the last knockings of this punishing meeting of century-old rivals. But somehow there was a sense that the champions, depleted and defeated, will have more to be satisfied with when the bruises ease.
The political backdrop could not be ignored. The Bath owner/chairman Bruce Craig lives in France and has been the principal go-between with the French clubs in their discussions with the English about ditching European Rugby Cup Ltd (ERC) and organising a new cross-border competition not run by the national unions. “The hour is grave,” Craig wrote in the match programme, and matters may be finally coming to a head, if only for the simple fact that the end of this season, when the old ERC accord expires, is a few months closer than it was at the end of last season. “If the Unions in the coming weeks do not approve the competitions, through regulatory process,” wrote Craig, “it will no doubt destroy European rugby and have catastrophic financial implications for Celtic and Italian rugby.”
Back to more parochial matters, and one wonders how much the bullish Premiership clubs’ salary cap, unchanged this season from last, might rise next year when the BT broadcasting funding kicks in. Leicester are already well stocked - just as well because yesterday they had seven England players injured among 13 missing overall either unfit or on international duty. Bath’s emerging star Kyle Eastmond was another crock from weekend one but they knew what a great chance this was to take points off their old rivals. Two tries and a 21-3 lead from the first half went a long way to confirming it, although Leicester had plenty of territory and shot themselves in the foot more than once.
With their banned coach Richard Cockerill watching from a box at one end of the Rec, Leicester led 3-0 with a penalty by David Mele but the French scrum-half had a difficult half as he was penalised by referee Greg Garner for pushing his opposite number Peter Stringer at a scrum and a crooked feed. Bath’s fly-half George Ford might have been wearing the Leicester No.10 jersey had he not switched clubs in the summer – ironically the man blocking his progress at Welford Road, Toby Flood, was among yesterday’s absentees – and after a wobbly start the 20-year-old played confidently and with some style, save for one loose clearing kick in the 33rd minute that almost allowed Adam Thompstone, returning it cleverly with a chip and chase, to score for Leicester. The wing was held up by a brave, not to say relieved Ford.
By that point Bath led 13-3 after Ford kicked two penalties and converted a 65-metre interception try for Jonathan Joseph who picked off an unnecessarily elaborate long pass by Ford;s opposite number Ryan Lamb, aimed at Sebastian de Chaves. A swinging arm by Logo Mulipola and a pull-down of a maul by Tom Youngs had Leicester down to 13 men as the half closed with another Ford penalty and a counter-attacking try for the bullocking Matt Banahan down the left, made by Semesa Rokoduguni seizing on Lamb’s hopeful grubber and Gavin Henson’s pass.
Henson has always been adept at spotting and using space; less so at identifying trouble in social situations and avoiding it. Playing in Eastmond’s place, the Welshman defended where he needed to and watched happily like the rest of the Rec as Bath regularly drove a Leicester pack lacking the ballast and nous of Marcos Ayerza, Louis Deacon, Geoff Parling and Tom Croft back in the scrum.
Leicester have not reached the past nine finals without huge reserves of heart and resourcefulness. Lamb’s cross kick seized on the impressive Thompstone made a try for Steve Mafi in the 47th minute. Another attack soon after finished with a weak pass by Anthony Allen, captain for the day. But the Tigers kept coming. Lamb was held on the dart but Mele probed the short side, via the south African lock De Chaves, to Ed Slater to score in the corner and Mele converted brilliantly to haul Bath in to 21-15.
Bath made many changes; they launched big runners up the middle. Ford kicked a 45-metre penalty for a ruck offence. But they were breached again when Leicester went the width of the field, left to right, and Thompstone slipped a neat scoring pass to Niki Goneva, helped by Bath’s Tom Biggs rushing to defend the wrong man.
Mele missed a penalty from halfway that would have cut the gap to a point. Bath, emboldened, trusted to the heavy mob. A catch and drive drew Slater, contentiously, into an in-at-the-side that Ford’s missed penalty failed to punish. But repeated pick-and-goes sapped Leicester’s strength and eked out another penalty for killing the ball and Ford chipped over an easy kick in front of the posts with a minute remaining.
Mike Ford, the Bath head coach and father of George, said: "Credit to Leicester, they've played nine grand finals and squeezed us in the second half. I'm pleased for George because there was a lot of pressure on him today. I;m pleased that he's come through it and we've got the win. It's not just about him, we're a young team and we're going to get better, without question." With a second win to add to Newcastle away last week, was Ford junior's motivation to prove Leicester wrong or show Bath's support he should be their main man? "George's motivation was to be the best team player for Bath, that was all," said Mike.
Bath: A Watson; S Rokoduguni, J Joseph (T Biggs 64), G Henson, M Banahan; G Ford, P Stringer (M Young 50); P James (N Catt 50), R Webber (R Batty 50), D Wilson (A Perenise 50), S Hooper (capt, D Day 50), D Attwood, M Garvey, G Mercer (A Fa’osiliva 62), L Houston.
Leicester Tigers: N Morris (O Williams 64); S Hamilton (N Briggs 42-47, D Bowden 50), V Goneva, A Allen (capt), A Thompstone; R Lamb, D Mele; L Mulipola, T Youngs, D Cole, E Slater, S de Chaves, S Mafi (B Stankovich 31-40, T Waldrom 63), J Salvi, J Crane (J Gibson 73).
Referee: G Garner (London).