For a brief moment yesterday, Northampton conceded their play-off spot in the Aviva Premiership to the Exeter Chiefs. If anything was calculated to add iron to their soul after a difficult week it was that and they duly took out their rage on Bath.
This was a game of no pretensions whatsoever. Northampton, who have had Calum Clark and Dylan Hartley banned, arrived in bitter mood and their muscularity was far too much for a Bath side who showed no cohesion. Their ineffectual set-piece display was matched by their impotence in midfield and there seems sure to be change when this season ends, on and off the field.
"It was totally unacceptable," said Martin Haag, whose contract as Bath's forward coach expires at the end of this season. "We didn't perform anywhere near where we needed to. We were off the pace, mentally as much as anything, and when we did play some decent rugby at the start of the second half, we made errors close to their line."
This is not what Bruce Craig, the club owner, is pouring his millions into and it will be even worse if Bath fail to qualify for next season's Heineken Cup. A place in the top six is not beyond them but they must play far better and Haag refused to look for excuses, such as uncertainty created by speculation over a new coach. "It's about pride in the shirt, about going out and performing," the former lock said. "We were awful, it's got nothing to do with anything else."
Northampton could lose Clark to his 32-week suspension and two England players, Courtney Lawes and Tom Wood, to injury and still churn out James Craig in the back row. He played so solid a game that he could have earned man of the match award. Phil Dowson revelled in every aspect of the game.
Northampton will sit down tomorrow to discuss an appeal on Clark's behalf and for Hartley, the hooker banned for eight weeks, and they will do so with confidence in themselves as a team and a club. It would have been easy to lapse into recrimination but they did their talking on the field, making a statement as early as the 12th minute, with a penalty try.
In that first quarter they demolished Bath's scrum and lineout (where there were three steals) and, effectively, won a penalty-strewn match. It was not their most accurate display but they performed the basics so well that Bath were fended off with ease.
That first score illustrated their command. Ryan Lamb's grubber kick forced Nick Abendanon to carry over his own line, conceding a five-metre scrum which, after five attempts, earned the penalty try. Before the interval, Lamb had kicked three penalty goals while Stephen Donald, his illustrious opposite number, kicked only two out of three and went on to miss two further attempts.
At least Donald, a New Zealand fly-half, had the excuse of no rugby over the last two months while recovering from a knee injury. But he was as out of touch as most of his colleagues. Bath posed a threat just after the interval, after a gallop from Ryan Caldwell and a kick through by Matt Banahan which eluded Matt Carraro. The ball did so because it was flapped into the dead-ball area by Chris Ashton, but the referee chose not to penalise the wing and give Bath a scrum instead. They made no use of it and the longer the second half went on, the stronger grew Northampton's control: Lamb kicked another penalty before giving way, with a dead leg, to Stephen Myler and Northampton put the game to bed with 17 minutes left.
They pushed a penalty into the corner, Mark Sorenson – back after a period in the sin-bin – took the line-out and Andy Long, against one of his former clubs, was shunted over the line. Myler converted from the touchline, making the game look – for one side at least – ridiculously easy.
Bath N Abendanon; M Banahan, D Hipkiss, M Carraro (S Vesty, 58), T Biggs; S Donald, M Claassens (capt; M McMillan, 64); D Flatman (N Catt, 52), P Dixon (R Batty, 61), D Wilson (D Bell, 64), D Attwood, R Caldwell, B Skirving (G Mercer, 28), S Taylor (J Ovens, 64), C Fearns.
Northampton Saints B Foden; C Ashton, G Pisi (T May, 72), J Downey, P Diggin; R Lamb (S Myler, 68), L Dickson (capt; M Roberts, 72); S Tonga'uiha (A Waller, 67), A Long (R McMillan, 72), B Mujati (P Doran-Jones, 58), M Sorenson, C Day (T Harrison, 75), J Craig, R Wilson (J Ingle, 76), P Dowson.
Referee M Fox (Leicestershire).
Pens: Donald 2
Tries: Penalty try, Long
Cons: Lamb, Myler
Pens: Lamb 3