For those seeking a clue to the puzzling demise of England, the heavyweights of Northampton and Bath offer one down and one across. The Saints yesterday posted their 10th sell-out crowd of the season here and yet their infuriating inconsistency had them languishing in the Guinness Premiership for most of the campaign before a recent resurgence, maintained in this thriller by two goals and two tries to a goal, a try and three penalties.
Bath have been a lot worse. They are down among the dregs and at one point were an outside contender for the Guinness Book of Records: in 2006 which club won the Heineken Cup and were relegated from the Premiership? Events since have taken a turn which means that Bath are unlikely to complete either leg of the question.
The defeat of Leeds to Saracens on Friday means the relegation issue, which wasn't settled until the last kick of the last Saturday last season, is a dead duck. Leeds have been read the last rites - yes, mathematically they have a chance of surviving, but they are hopeless at maths - and are destined to swap places with Harlequins in National League One. If you can't beat Sarries at home there's no hope and as a result Bath have been let off the hook.
Last week, while Northampton were being humbled by Worcester in the European Challenge Cup, conceding five tries, Bath were walking away from the Walkers Stadium in Leicester (in the West Country it can be referred to as Lourdes) with a quarter-final victory in the Heineken Cup that defied every law of nature. The Tigers are still kicking themselves, and their supporters will never forgive them for missing out on a semi-final against Biarritz in San Sebastian. How many Bathonians will make the journey to northern Spain remains to be seen, but the majority of the club's supporters couldn't be bothered to travel to the east Midlands last week, when Bath mounted a defence that was awe inspiring.
You can't re-enact the Alamo in the space of seven days (although Alex Crockett did his best) and yesterday Bath conceded two tries in six minutes in the first half. The first lit up Franklin's Gardens. Carlos Spencer spreadeagled the defence with a 40-yard run and his inside scoring pass to Bruce Reihana was also a work of art. Great from a Saints' point of view, less so for England. Spencer and Reihana are New Zealanders and only three Englishmen were in Northampton's starting XV.
When Bath were stretched again by a slick threequarter move the beneficiary was Ben Cohen, which was better news for the Red Rose brigade. Cohen didn't have the greatest of Six Nations but he can still finish. And defend. In the opening minutes he pulled off a try-saving tackle on Andy Higgins but nobody was around to prevent Salesi Finau giving Bath the lead after 20 minutes. He is something to behold, this Tongan wing. Give him a bowler hat and he'd be the spitting image of Oddjob in Goldfinger, only tougher.
Reihana converted both to give Northampton a 14-5 lead at half-time, after which things really hotted up. Brian Ashton replaced Chris Malone, his Australian matchwinner at Leicester, with the Samoan Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu. Olly Barkley moved to stand-off and he began to look like an English version of Spencer. It all led to a tumultuous half but little of it was made in England. Bath's problem now is holding on to Ashton. He only returned to his home club a few months ago but his country needs him. A dilemma? If England offer him the role of backs' coach the impression is that he'll be at Twickenham faster than you can say Andy Robinson.
In all, the lead changed hands five times. Barkley landed a penalty and then sent Joe Maddock, another New Zealander, over for a try after Andy Williams had shredded the Saints with a tap-and-go penalty. To counter the power of Pat Barnard, a young South African prop who is eligible for England, Bath sent on Duncan Bell. Northampton regained the lead at 19-15 with Reihana's second try and lost it again to two Barkley penalties.
Crockett, who is no relation to Davy, deserves a mention. Reduced to wearing a bandage around his forehead, some of his defensive work was outstanding. Bath were hanging on to a two-point lead when Reihana somehow managed to leave a 35-yard penalty well short. In the swirling wind he used a 7-iron when he needed a 3-wood.
The natives were getting restless when, in the 80th minute, Spencer found Mark Easter by the left-hand touchline and the replacement turned, twisted and cajoled his way over for the Saints' winner and bonus-point try. Happy Easter.
Northampton: B Reihana (co-capt); S Lamont, J Clarke, D Quinlan, B Cohen; C Spencer, M Robinson; T Smith, S Thompson (co-capt; D Richmond, 73), P Barnard (C Budgen, 61), Damien Browne, M Lord, P Tupai (B Lewitt, 61), Daniel Browne (M Easter, 73), S Harding.
Bath: J Maddock (N Abendanon, 78); S Finau, A Crockett, O Barkley, A Higgins; C Malone (E Fuimaono-Sapolu, 41), A Williams; D Flatman (D Bell, 51), P Dixon (L Mears, 61), T Filise, S Borthwick (capt; R Fidler, 80), D Grewcock, P Short, G Delve, M Lipman (I Fea'unati, 73).
Referee: D Rose (Warwickshire).Reuse content