There are many ways to earn a winning bonus point, as Bath proved by flirting with defeat to the bottom club Worcester before Matt Banahan’s try three minutes from full-time sent waves of relief around the Rec.
Throughout an unpredictable match that featured two dubious yellow cards, thanks to a refereeing diktat introduced stupidly late in the season, Worcester came achingly close to the dual feat of boosting their tiny chances of avoiding relegation and worsening Bath’s play-off prospects by adding to the recent wins on this ground by Saracens and Sale.
Bath have not finished in the top four since 2010, which helps explain why a team apparently possessing all the talents from a strong scrum to a backline to die for is enduring a few wobbles. The league title itself has not resided here since John Major was in No 10.
Had Bath not squeaked a win in the battle of Kingsholm last weekend, they would be giving their owner, Bruce Craig, an attack of the vapours. As it is, they will host Northampton on Friday week knowing a win will secure a play-off place. A home semi-final is still possible. So is missing out all together.
As for Worcester, they are still odds on to be relegated for a second time since they were first promoted to the Premiership in 2004. Whatever their encouraging current form, the overall record of one win in 25 Premiership matches is undeniable.They were hurt by the 13 points from missed kicks (to one conversion missed for Bath by George Ford) by Ryan Lamb – who would be a world-beater if his vision were matched by his boot – and Chris Pennell.
If second-bottom Newcastle beat Saracens at Kingston Park today, Worcester will be down; otherwise it will go to the penultimate fixture on 3 May when the Warriors must get some points away to Saracens.
“There’s still one more game before someone writes the actual headline,” said Dean Ryan, the Worcester director of rugby, who has made a dozen signings for next season. “This group is travelling and we’ll see where we go.”
With Bath starting slowly, Worcester’s unlikely hope flickered like the flame in the Bosch boilers that made the fortune of the Warriors’ chairman of 17 years, Cecil Duckworth, who sat a few rows back from the halfway line, as Josh Drauniniu finished a beautifully constructed try in the 10th minute.
It began with brave flat passes behind a line-out, and ended with the wing neatly fed by Jonathan Thomas and Pennell before he cut past Nick Abendanon and Micky Young. Each of those Bath men would soon gain retribution with their own tries but their team needed to overcome some frustrating ball lost in contact first.
The inevitable Bath revival had its source in Worcester errors; one of them by Mike Williams almost comically deciding the way to deal with a maul was to fly into it chest-first to bring the whole thing to the ground. Ford’s accurate penalty to touch and a bash by Banahan led to Ford and Matt Garvey creating a scoring gap for Youngs, with Ford adding the conversion. In the 25th minute Bath led 14-5 when Ford offloaded a lobbed pass out of Drauniniu’s tackle to give Horacio Agulla a side-stepping run to the line. Ford’s conversion was followed by a penalty from Ryan Lamb that hit a post to go with his earlier missed conversion, and Pennell missed a penalty two minutes into the second half.
All this was humdrum, though, compared with the sin-bin nonsense. The Jared Payne red card in the Ulster-Saracens match two weeks ago has led, according to Ryan and the Bath assistant coach, Toby Booth, to a midweek email from Joel Jutge, the IRB referee manager, demanding a minimum yellow card for any player tackled illegally in the air.
It seemed terribly harsh when Worcester’s Sam Betty went off in the 38th minute; the man he collided with, Agulla, was a long way from catching the ball. Bath then blew one position when Rob Webber overreacted to winning a scrum penalty, but soon got another in a similar fashion. The line-out from that penalty was brilliantly intercepted by Mariano Galarza, but Worcester did not get the ball off for half-time, and allowed Abendanon what may be his final try at the Pulteney Bridge end before he joins Clermont Auvergne.
Ford kicked a penalty for 22-5 after 47 minutes before he suffered an even worse decision than Betty’s; all the fly-half apeared to do was stand his ground as David Lemi jumped into him, yet the referee Matt Carley brought the card out again. “I wonder what email we’ll get next week,” grumbled Ryan, while Booth was equally baffled.
With the one-man advantage, Worcester had a try by Andy Symons converted by Pennell, as the centre cut through a rejigged Bath midfield, with Gavin Henson on and a frustrated Kyle Eastmond off. Pennell added a conversion and penalty to Henson’s penalty, then the Worcester full-back made life even more interesting at 25-20 in the 65th minute with a try at the left corner from Symons’ long pass.
But Pennell’s conversion and another penalty were off target, unlike Ford who put Banahan through a hole and happily added the extras.
Bath: N Abendanon; A Watson (J Joseph 67), M Banahan, K Eastmond (G Henson 55), H Agulla; G Ford, M Young (P Stringer 58); N Catt (P James 71), R Webber (R Batty 49), D Wilson (A Perenise 61), S Hooper (capt), D Attwood, M Garvey (G Mercer 55), C Fearns, L Houston.
Worcester Warriors: C Pennell; J Drauniniu, A Grove, A Symons, D Lemi; R Lamb, J Arr; O Fainga’anuku (P Andrew 48), A Creevy (E Shervington 48), E Murray (R O’Donnell 79), J Percival (R de Carpentier 79), M Galarza, M Williams (S Taulava 20-24, 51), S Betty, J Thomas (capt).
Referee: M Carley (Kent).