Bath are no different to any other club with serious designs on winning the Premiership title in not wanting an away tie when the play-offs come along in May.
But if the Rec crew’s form during the current run of matches that coincide with the Six Nations Championship does not improve, they may forfeit their prized place in the top two of the table, and be forced on to the road, where their results this season have been a mixed bag.
Northampton consolidated their position at the summit with a ferocious devotion to contesting the breakdown, led by the modern circus strongman that is the flanker Calum Clark. There must be some mighty English back-five forwards out there if he is not required for international duty. The win gave the Saints a nine-point lead over Bath, who lost at Saracens last week and will face fourth-placed Exeter away and Sale (fifth) at home in the next fortnight.
After an early try by Olly Woodburn yesterday, Bath were unable to generate their customary quick, clean ball, while Tom Homer’s arrival with the deserved renown of a reliable goal-kicker had less than the desired effect; the erstwhile London Irish full-back missed three penalties to a missed penalty and conversion by Steve Myler.
In total there were 13 absent regulars between the two sides – injury and suspension adding to those rested between England and Wales matches – and with Jonathan Joseph among them it was another chance for Sam Burgess to start in the centres outside Kyle Eastmond. The latter must be hoarse by the final whistle, as he guides his fellow convert from rugby league around the field. With a turnover, a positional kick and a nice flat pass to Homer, there were only the merest signs that the “sparkly eyed man”, as Burgess’s A-list acting pal Russell Crowe likes to call him, is calibrating his sights to the radically different angles of union.
It looked good for Bath in the first minute when Eastmond worked Semesa Rokoduguni, the comet glimpsed briefly in England’s autumn, away on the right but Jamie Elliott made a fantastic tackle. Bath kept going and Woodburn finished the try despite dropping the ball and needing to skid to a halt millimetres inside the touchline as he regathered.
While Bath’s playmaker and kicker-in-chief, George Ford, watched in his civvies at pitchside, Homer knocked over the conversion followed by a penalty in the 23rd minute when the home pack forced a penalty out of Northampton’s scrum and had Bath 10-0 up. But Homer missed from 55 metres (a distance undaunting to him normally) inbetween, and wobbled twice more into the wind in the second half.
Northampton’s Myler was awry with a penalty head-on to the posts won brilliantly at a ruck by Clark, as well as the conversion of James Wilson’s try in the 28th minute. Elliott’s midfield dash made space for James Craig on the right but the lock held possession rather than feeding Ken Pisi outside him. But Northampton kept going and Tom Stephenson’s footwork foxed Eastmond and Rokoduguni to allow Wilson to dot down at the left corner a split-second before his heel brushed the touchline.
It is often forgotten that Myler started out in league but the fly-half has been a union man for eight years now and his conversions of the try by the England hooker Dylan Hartley’s understudy, Mike Haywood, put Saints 12-10 ahead six minutes before the interval. Again Saints stretched Bath the width of the field and, as the attack probed left to right, Myler’s long pass went via Gareth Denman and Ken Pisi to Haywood.
Myler’s penalties built the lead to eight points by the 52nd minute, Homer replied in the 56th after a break by Micky Young through the remnants of a line-out, but Saints rectified their scrum problems and Myler from the 10-metre line concluded the scoring with nine minutes remaining.
A brave defensive line-out throw secured by Samu Manoa summed up Northampton’s obduracy, and their director of rugby Jim Mallinder said: “The lads who have stepped in for the internationals are excelling.” His Bath counterpart Mike Ford had no complaints: “They strangled the life out of us and showed why they are the champions.”
Bath: T Homer; S Rokoduguni, S Burgess, K Eastmond, O Woodburn; O Devoto, M Young (P Stringer 60); P James (N Auterac 53), R Webber (R Batty 53), H Thomas (K Palma-Newport 71), S Hooper (capt), D Day, M Garvey (A Faosiliva 53), F Louw, C Fearns (L Houston 53).
Northampton Saints: J Wilson; K Pisi, G Pisi, T Stephenson, J Elliott; S Myler, L Dickson (capt, K Fotuali’i 60); A Waller (A Corbisiero 48), M Haywood, G Denman (T Mercey 69), J Craig (P Dowson 31), C Day, S Manoa, C Clark, S Dickinson.
Referee: G Garner (Warwickshire).Reuse content