End of season play-offs being what they are – that is to say, a continuing assault on the integrity of a 22-match league campaign, designed partly to satisfy those clubs who victimise themselves by developing good young players to international standard but largely to give sponsors and broadcasters a high-profile grand final "event" in front of 82,000 supporters at Twickenham – it does not much matter that teams from either side of the river Thames are fighting between themselves for top spot in the Aviva Premiership. Come late spring, the destination of the title could have a lot more to do with the East Midlands than it does with the capital.
What does matter is the kind of rugby union provided at top club level between now and the end of May, and judging by what happened in Watford yesterday, the less the English game sees of French referee Pascal Gauzere, the better. Gauzere has something of a track record when it comes to mishandling things at the set-piece and if his officiating of the scrum here was anything to go by he knows a whole lot less about who does what to whom and why in the darkened recesses than President Sarkozy knows about the long-term future of the single currency.
Bath should have been awarded a penalty try in the first quarter, which would have put them 14-0 up – the fact that Rhys Gill, the Saracens loose-head prop, was sent to the sin bin for committing a scrum misdemeanour as the West Country pack were shunting themselves over the line should have given Gauzere a massive clue over what to do next – and there was some alarm in the visiting camp over the late decision against a front-rower of their own, the World Cup forward David Wilson, that allowed Owen Farrell to put the champions beyond reach. The fact that the young Bath outside-half Tom Heathcote replied in kind in stoppage time to earn his side a losing bonus point did not absolve the Frenchman of responsibility for a series daft decisions, most of which appeared to be guesses.
Under the circumstances, it was no particular surprise that there was a falling-out between various rivals as they headed down the tunnel at half-time. According to eye-witnesses, a couple of assistant coaches pushed and shoved each other after attempts by one of the Bath contingent to engage M Gauzere in conversation, presumably along the lines of: "What the hell was that about?" One or two players, notably the Bath lock Ryan Caldwell, seemed keen to join in, but failed in their quest. "It was irrelevant," pronounced Sir Ian McGeechan, the Bath director of rugby, decisively. "Seen worse," said Martin Haag, the knight of the realm's forwards coach. "We all had a big hug and a kiss at the end. Well, maybe not a kiss."
Haag had rather more to say about the scrum contest, which was excellent to begin with and dire by the end. Nathan Catt, the young Bath prop who had performed so well in the convincing victory over London Irish seven days previously, had the upper hand on his direct opponent, his former clubmate Matt Stevens, but once the international left the field with a rib injury – more problems, it seems, for England's caretaker coach Stuart Lancaster – the visitors' advantage evaporated. Carlos Nieto, the Italian front-rower, may not boast Stevens' tackle count or rumble around the field flicking high-class passes out of contact, but when it comes to the cold-eyed business of establishing set-piece supremacy, he is as effective as most.
Add to Nieto the many and varied close-quarter talents of the World Cup-winning Springbok captain John Smit, who left sun-kissed Durban for chilblained Watford back in the autumn, and it is no easy job conning Saracens out of anything at the scrum.
"A wily old fox, that Smit," muttered Haag. Had he said what he really meant, he might have found himself in need of a good lawyer.
It took Saracens the best part of 40 minutes to hit the front, having fallen behind to Stephen Donald's early try, but all things considered they deserved their victory. Farrell had a poor day with his goal-kicking, leaving a dozen points "out there" to use the current coaching jargon, but there was plenty of energy about the uncapped midfielder, who is confidently expected to feature in Lancaster's 32-man Six Nations squad when it is announced on Wednesday.
Yet it was not the much-discussed youngster who caught the eye. Two comparative veterans, the wing David Strettle and the lock Steve Borthwick, were the true stars of the show.
Strettle's twinkle-toed footwork gave Saracens a threat out wide that Bath failed to match until Tom Biggs did some Fred Astaire-ing of his own to earn Heathcote his last-ditch penalty shot. Borthwick, meanwhile, marked another commanding performance with a rare try, albeit from such close range that it was virtually no range at all. In spearheading his side's line-out operation and registering the kind of tackle-count usually associated with a blind-side flanker, the captain proved once again that England's decision to ditch him – while injured – in the summer of 2010 was as muddle-headed as it was cowardly.
"A lot of people are being spoken about in the England connection, but Steve seems to be the one not mentioned," said McCall with a bemused shake of the head. "That's bizarre. You'd have to ask him if he still wants to play international rugby, but I'd guess that he'd never say no if his country came calling. He's been outstanding for us all season."
Appropriately enough, Borthwick's good work – a couple of important carries in and around the Bath 22 – was at the heart of Saracens' second try a dozen minutes from time, which pretty much settled things. Chris Wyles, the ultra-consistent American back, was the beneficiary as Pieter Dixon and Nick Abendanon fluffed tackles they would have found easier to make. Haag could be seen shaking his head about that, too.
Saracens: Tries Borthwick, Wyles. Conversions Farrell 2. Penalties Farrell 4.
Bath: Try Donald. Conversion Donald. Penalties Heathcote 3, Donald.
Saracens A Goode; D Strettle (J Short 70), O Farrell, B Barritt, C Wyles; C Hodgson (A Powell 70), B Spencer (P Stringer 53); R Gill (J George 66), J Smit, M Stevens (C Nieto 29, P Du Plessis 77), S Borthwick (capt, G Kruis 70), M Botha, J Wray (Nieto 15-25), A Saull, E Joubert (J Melck 53).
Bath N Abendanon; O Woodburn, M Carraro, M Banahan, T Biggs; S Donald (T Heathcote 43), M Claassens; N Catt (C Beech 50), R Batty (P Dixon 63), A Perenise (D Wilson 50), D Attwood, R Caldwell, A Beattie (B Skirving 54), F Louw (capt), S Taylor.
Referee P Gauzere (France).Reuse content