The mist hung low over Bathwick Hill and the rain drenched those brave enough to forego the Christmas shopping, but seasonal cheer warmed Saracen hearts. Their challenge to recover the Aviva Premiership title which they held in 2011 is everything they want it to be at this halfway stage of the season, and if Charlie Hodgson sustains this level of match management, they will still be there in May.
Hodgson, 32 this month, gave what his director of rugby, Mark McCall, happily described as a masterclass, most notably in the first half, which Saracens ended 16 points to the good. The former England fly-half made the opening for the game's only try, he kicked his goals, he drove his forwards to the places they needed to be – given the sodden surface on the cricket-pitch side of the Recreation Ground, he could even have been said to be walking on water.
"The top of the table is kind of irrelevant. It's a pretty good effort to be in this position after 11 games, of which seven have been away," McCall said. Saracens have the best away record in the Premiership, regardless of their try-scoring record, which staggered into double figures yesterday after Richard Wigglesworth touched down.
They can afford to score less than a try a game if they defend at the same parsimonious rate (their line has been crossed only nine times this season) and this was a day when performing the basics in defence was key. Bath, despite two long spells in the opposition 22, seldom looked like scoring a try. "Saracens don't give many penalties away, they know how to defend the maul and they have an aggressive defence on the edge," Mike Ford, Bath's assistant coach, said.
In contrast to Hodgson, Bath's fly-half endured a miserable afternoon. Stephen Donald may have won the 2011 World Cup for New Zealand but here he missed three first-half penalties in six minutes, put a restart kick dead and found the Saracens defenders apparently reading his every intention when he tried to kick for territory.
Add to that a misfiring line-out (you wonder whether Steve Borthwick reserves his best dissections of the opposing line-out for his former club) and it is no wonder that Saracens marched so cheerily into Christmas. Hodgson had only kicked the first of his five penalties when, behind a line-out 40 metres from the Bath line, he stepped inside the defence and found David Strettle on his elbow; the wing was brought down in the Bath 22 but Wigglesworth finished strongly for Saracens' 10th try of the Premiership season and one to be proud of on the driest of days.
Hodgson added two more lengthy penalties before the break, though he had the good grace to smile bashfully when he dropped a ball and was cheered by the home crowd. They had little else to celebrate; even when Bath marched a maul 25 metres and forced a penalty, they made nothing of the line-out while, on their increasingly rare visits to the home half, Saracens came away with points.
It makes the holiday period crucial for Bath. They lurk in a close-knit mid-table group which includes their next two opponents, Exeter Chiefs and London Wasps. "We said this game would show us where we are and we have to get better," Ford said. "Our kicking game was poor and, in these conditions, if you don't kick well it's difficult to get any sort of platform."
Bath N Abendanon; H Agulla, K Eastmond, B Williams (D Hipkiss, 61), T Biggs; S Donald, M Claassens; P James (C Beech, 77), L Mears (T Dunn, 65), D Wilson (A Perenise, 77), S Hooper (capt), D Day (D Attwood, 61), F Louw, S Taylor, G Mercer.
Saracens C Wyles; C Ashton (J Short, 65), J Tomkins, O Farrell, D Strettle (D Taylor, 71); C Hodgson, R Wigglesworth (N de Kock, 51); M Vunipola (R Gill, 51), S Brits (J George, 65), M Stevens (P du Plessis, 65), S Borthwick (capt; E Sheriff, 15-19, 44-46, 73), M Botha, G Kruis, K Brown, W Fraser.
Referee G Garner (Warwickshire).
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