Northampton 24 Bath 21: Spencer's tricks thicken air of uncertainty at Bath

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The Independent Online

Brian Ashton, Bath's head coach, was in a realistic mood after watching his team slip to defeat in an entertaining Premiership match at Franklin's Gardens. "We are delighted to be in the semi-finals of the Heineken Cup," he said, "but the league is more important. The imperative is for us to play Premiership rugby next season."

His team did salvage a point to add to their cushion over the bottom-placed Leeds, which is now 10 points, but based on this performance a run-in against Bristol and Worcester at home and Sale away is going to be demanding.

Olly Barkley, eager to win a place on the England tour to Australia, was acutely disappointed with the defeat. "We were on their line three times at the end there and three times we were turned over," he said. "That is criminal. There were tries there for the taking, we didn't take them and that has cost us the game."

Barkley had begun the game at inside-centre, but after half-time Ashton sent on Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu in place of Chris Malone. Barkley switched to outside-half for the remainder of the match and looked extremely comfortable, linking well with the Samoan.

But for all the attacks Bath launched after the interval they could not manage as many as Northampton, whose four tries earned a place in the top six for the first time this season. They displayed superb team-work and great ball handling, but one man stood out. The former New Zealand No 10 Carlos Spencer was masterful and prompted Ashton to say: "No other player in world rugby plays that position the way he does. The instant he gets the ball he is a threat."

Still, Barkley did not look half bad, even before the switch. He, too, has a great pass. He, too, can kick cannily. He, too, makes dangerous breaks. England would benefit from his presence. "I am desperate to get back and play for England and if selected for the Australia tour I'd love to go," he said.

All Barkley lacked compared with Spencer was the trickery. Spencer has the full bag, Barkley a quarter of it.

Spencer's break to send his fellow Kiwi Bruce Reihana over for Saints' first try set the tone. Saints ran the ball at every opportunity and thoroughly entertained yet another sell-out home crowd.

Thanks to Fuimaono-Sapolu and Barkley, Bath were able to respond in kind. In fact Bath had drawn first blood but, unfortunately for them, Saints staunched that wound and then wrapped up the match.

Northampton: Tries Reihana 2, Cohen, Easter; Conversions Reihana 2. Bath: Tries Finau, Maddock; Conversions Barkley; Penalties Barkley 3.

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, 68), P Barnard (C Budgen, 61), Damien Browne, M Lord, P Tupai (B Lewitt, 61), S Harding, Daniel Browne (M Easter, 72).

Bath: J Maddock (N Abendanon, 78); A Higgins, A Crockett, O Barkley, S Finau; C Malone (E Fuimaono-Sapolu, 40), A Williams; D Flatman (D Bell, 51), P Dixon (L Mears, 61), T Filise, S Borthwick (capt; R Fidler, 80), D Grewcock, P Short, M Lipman (I Fea'unati, 73), G Delve.

Referee: D Rose (Warwickshire).

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