There cannot have been many bigger cheers heard around what many see as an outdated relic of a stadium than the one the Rec unleashed when Francois Louw kicked through a ruck, and Stephen Donald, the misfit All Black flanker who is soon leaving for Japan, bravely carried the ball away from danger with seemingly half of the Leicester Tigers on his back. In the last seconds of both teams’ penultimate regular-season Premiership match, with implications for the top and middle of the table, it secured a win for Bath that was almost lost through the wobbly goal-kicking of Donald and others.
Those thinking ahead to the British & Irish Lions tour would have lapped up another of Tom Croft's handsome recent performances in the broken field and turnovers, whereas Croft's Leicester team-mate Manu Tuilagi was more frustrating. The frighteningly powerful centre showed the worrying limitation of his passing, twice ignoring men outside in favour of contact and without being able to complete the post-tackle offload that might have justified what he did.
Tuilagi was also foxed by a silky run from Kyle Eastmond deep into the period from the 56th minute onwards when Bath were desperately trying to claw back Leicester's four-point lead. They finally managed it with seven minutes remaining when a Ben Youngs kick was boldly returned by the Bath replacement prop Anthony Perenise, who unleashed a spectacular one-handed offload for Louw, his captain, to finish the decisive try at the corner with a huge dive.
The tricky conversion by Tom Heathcote was off-target, and therein lay an important subplot to the main narrative: Heathcote, Donald and Ollie Devoto missed five kicks at goal between them to Toby Flood's none for Leicester. It emphasised the value to Bath of scoring four tries to Leicester's two, rewarding a gameplan aimed at stifling Flood. The home side were none too subtle in attack but never allowed Leicester to get more than eight points clear.
The result strengthened Bath's hand as they seek Heineken Cup qualification for next season by finishing in the Premiership's top six (or seven if Saracens win this season's Heineken in mid-May to earn England's clubs an extra place). The outcome of the meeting between their nearest rivals, Wasps and Exeter, today will be important, but essentially Bath will have to go all out for a win on their trip to Saracens on Saturday week. As for Leicester, they remain well set to earn a home semi-final with a win or draw against London Irish at Welford Road the same day.
A couple of scrum penalties eked out by Bath in the first half here may perturb the Tigers; on the flipside, they reversed that specific score after the break. "We only have ourselves to blame," said Richard Cockerill, Leicester's director of rugby. "We needed to be more accurate, and we know wherever we go it's everybody's cup final."
Cockerill indicated the week's rest his squad will have before they return to training will be welcome.
Tit for tat try-scoring in the first half had Simon Taylor over first for Bath to give them a 7-3 lead after Flood's first penalty among the England fly-half's half-dozen successful kicks and Donald's missed penalty. Tom Croft scored from a Leicester line-out with Adam Thompstone setting up in midfield and the England and 2009 Lions flanker swerving past Devoto at full-back in a testament to the hardening grounds that Premiership players speak so lovingly about at this time of year.
Semesa Rokoduguni ran in an interception try after picking off Mathew Tait's pass on the halfway line for Bath before poor Devoto was again a helpless and blameless last line of defence when Youngs tapped to himself and streaked 80 minutes through a dozing Bath side for a remarkable solo effort. A former Tiger had the last word before half-time, though, when Horacio Agulla caught a deliberate and accurate cross-kick by Donald to reward a Bath move following a line-out secured by Dave Attwood that skilfully sucked Leicester's defence in and left Tait exposed.
Donald, who is off to Japan this summer among seven Bath leavers, converted that one but, as their defence coach, Mike Ford, observed afterwards: "We left 13 points out there through kicks, so scoring four tries to two was pretty pleasing.
"What we've done is give ourselves a chance [of the Heineken Cup] and we've got two weeks to prepare for the last match. We kept a pretty firm rein on the league's top try scorers."
Two penalties by Flood after the officials judged Tait had not touched a misjudged punt from Donald over his goal-line and dead had Leicester 26-19 up before Heathcote, who had just come on with Donald moving to centre, struck a penalty which lifted spirits just as quickly as they sank again when the youngster hit a post from 40 metres.
It is widely believed Heathcote will have George Ford, son of Mike but currently a Tiger, for fly-half company here next season after a summer transfer. For now the homophonic Louw, Bath's South African flanker, is the toast of the city.
Bath: O Devoto; S Rokodugini, B Williams (T Heathcote, 53), K Eastmond, H Agulla; S Donald, M Claassens (P Stringer, 69); P James (N Catt, 61), R Webber (E Guinazu, 61), D Wilson (A Perenise, 60), D Day (W Spencer, 69), D Attwood, F Louw (capt), S Taylor (N Koster, 63-72), G Mercer (M Gilbert, 69).
Leicester Tigers: M Tait; M Smith, M Tuilagi, A Allen, A Thompstone (G Murphy, 63); T Flood (capt), B Youngs; L Mulipola, T Youngs (R Hawkins, 69), D Cole (M Castrogiovanni, 71), S Mafi (E Slater, 44), G Parling, T Croft, T Waldrom (J Crane, 53), J Salvi.
Referee: T Wigglesworth (Yorkshire).