This felt like a pivotal match in the Premiership, and not just because it marked the completion of the first half of regular-season fixtures. Bath’s burgeoning title challenge would have been headlined in bold if they had cracked Northampton’s unbeaten home league record. Instead it was the the second-placed Saints, with George North operating at full blast, who looked the more solid all-rounders.
There was a surfeit of fringe candidates for the revised England senior squad to be named by the head coach, Stuart Lancaster, on 9 January. If it is pace you want, then Bath’s Anthony Watson, Kyle Eastmond and Jonathan Joseph have it in spades, as evidenced in the try by Eastmond that helped them into a jolting lead of 13-0 after 16 minutes. Luther Burrell, the Saints centre, is a more prosaic threat: a hefty carrier but prone to problems with his offloads. Place kicking accuracy? The Premiership’s most princely percentage success rate belongs to Northampton’s Steve Myler, up in the mid-80s as the league’s best and significantly better than George Ford despite the Bath tyro being considered the better bet to step up from the second-tier Saxons.
North’s release to play for Wales outside the international window at the back end of last month cost Northampton a £60,000 fine for breaking Premiership policy but the big wing’s value to his English employers was monumentally clear from his rampant roaming in the midfield; North also terrorised Watson and Matt Banahan under the high ball. Jim Mallinder, the Saints’ director of rugby, revealed the fine actually covers the entire three years of North’s contract to summer 2016, and if it was necessary to keep the former Scarlet happy, then it was money well spent.
“George was outstanding, he got us going after that first 10 or 15 minutes, he got us on the front foot with his carrying and his high balls. It’s taken him a little bit of time but he showed why he’s a world class player,” Malinder said.
Bath’s newly rediscovered gristle – a run of 11 wins in all competitions was their best since 2003-04, when they finished top of the table and lost the play-off final – was bound to lead to some bristle. In Dylan Hartley, Calum Clark, Samu Manoa, Lawes and others, Northampton had the personnel to respond. Typical was Salesi Ma’afu giving Bath’s boisterous Springbok back-rower Francois Louw an open-handed clout. Leinster won 40-7 here three weeks ago but otherwise Franklin’s Gardens has been impregnable this season, with Saints scoring heavily.
Bath had a lovely start, with two penalties by Ford either side of a classic counter-attack try converted by Ford. A punt by Ken Pisi was caught by Paul James, the Bath loosehead prop, and Watson was launched through a gap before the full-back passed inside to Eastmond.
The referee, Luke Pearce, had already been substituted, needing three stitches in a cut forehead after Bath’s Anthony Perenise ran into him. Martin Fox stepped up from fourth-official duties and when the new referee showed James a yellow card for pulling down a maul in the red zone it was a big factor in Saints’ tries by Christian Day in the 21st minute and Pisi’s brother George in the 30th. The first from a line-out drive culminated in Hartley’s calm scoring pass; for the second a cross-kick by Kahn Fotuali’I to Jamie Elliott drew groans from the crowd but they should have had more faith. Elliott made the catch, Northampton recycled, and Bath’s wide defence cracked as it would do another three times.
By half-time Northampton were 21-13 ahead. Lawes’s stooped driving and Ken Pisi’s tidy straightening of the angle made Elliott’s finish a doddle. North was winded by a mistimed midair challenge from Horacio Agulla but the effect was temporary.
Myler collected his fourth conversion after Day’s second try, three minutes into the second half. Up the other end, Saints stood up and wheeled to deny Bath at a scrum but a penalty and a lineout drive led eventually to Rob Webber scoring, although Ford was unable to land the conversion. Manoa quickly replied for Northampton – Myler’s conversion attempt hit a post – but Bath came back, with a pushover try for the replacement No.8 Leroy Houston after Tom Collins had carried the ball over to thwart Joseph’s chip and chase.
Now eight points adrift, but within a try of two bonus points, how Bath wished their line-out was as reliable as their scrum. Webber’s replacement Eusebio Guinazu lost a throw on halfway and, duly ruffled, Bath conceded territory and a penalty that Myler, predictably, belted over from 40 metres out. North’s last-minute try, cleaning up a fumble by Bath in their 22, converted by Myler was a wonderfully apt conclusion.
“I’m proud because not many teams come here and score from a drive and score from a pushover scrum, but we seemed to lose the collisions that we’d been winning recently,” Mike Ford, the Bath head coach, said. “Northampton and Saracens are probably up above anyone else in the league at the moment. The challenge for us is to go to Leicester next week and go on another run.”
Northampton Saints: K Pisi (T Collins, 48); J Elliott, G Pisi (G Dickson, 75), L Burrell, G North; S Myler, K Fotuali’i (L Dickson, 62); A Waller (E Waller, 62), D Hartley (capt; M Haywood, 70), S Ma’afu (T Mercey, 53), C Lawes, C Day (S Dickinson, 70), C Clark (P Dowson, 64), T Wood, S Manoa.
Bath: A Watson; H Agulla (N Abendanon, 60), J Joseph, K Eastmond, M Banahan; G Ford, M Roberts (P Stringer, 47); P James (N Catt, 60), R Webber (E Guinazu,, 64), A Perenise (JP Orlandi 53), S Hooper (capt; D Day, 53), D Attwood, M Garvey, F Louw, C Fearns (Catt, 24-31, L Houston, 47).
Referee: L Pearce (Devon; M Fox (Leicestershire.