It was a game we had all anxiously been awaiting, the penultimate weekend to the regular Aviva Premiership season, one that saw Northampton Saints edge closer to securing a home semi-final but it wasn’t a win that saw them defiant,Â it was a draw.
A merry-go-round of mixed emotions for the home fans, with captain Stuart Hooper celebrating his 200thÂ Premiership appearance for Bath and Nick Abendanon playing his last home match at the beautiful Rec, before his move to Clermont Auvergne.
Scanning the team sheet, it was clear the key battle would be upfront, with Paul James,Â Rob Webber and David Wilson, squaring up to Alex Waller, Ross McMillan and Salesi Ma’afu. Â Meetings of Herculean might and a set of scorching scrums guaranteed! Â But who would crack first?
Well we soon had our answer in the balance and binding of the front rows. Â Both sides were penalised for not pushing straight.
Northampton Saints displayed their intent, with ball in hand, early on – but Bath’s defence was wholesome and watertight.Â Â Â Even a superbly constructed Saintsâ€™ rolling maul didn’t manage to break Bathâ€™s barrier and it was the boot of Stephen Myler who took them into a three point lead.
The physicality and power of both sides did much to reflect their positions in the Premiership table, points accruing with Myler and George Ford trading penalties. Â Bath looked decisive in defence with some tenacious tackling, while Northampton’s work rate on the attack was on overtime, especially with the likes of Samu Manoa and Courtney Lawes featuring as strong, bullish ball carriers.
But Bathâ€™s play saw an injection of intensity ten minutes to half time, as they fuelled their momentum on the attack.
The Rec responded and a concise cross-field kick, caught by Anthony Watson put Bath on the front foot. A quick succession of off-loads and outstanding defensive lines from Bath, saw them looking lethal but a last minute drop goal attempt by Ford went wide, leaving the half time scores at 6-6.
Back through the tunnel and Bath emerged energised and ebullient and with Northampton penalised at the breakdown off the restart, the words from Captain Stuart Hooper, ‘Great start, great start!’ built up and buoyed his West-Country team – it was crunch time.
Soon came a moment of real memorable magic from Ford – sparkling movesÂ sprinkled with several superior sidesteps,Â he evaded not one, not two but three defenders, scoring the first try of the game â€“Â andÂ adding the extras to boot!Â
Brazen, brave, brilliance from the International fly-half.
In reply, it wasn’t long before our eyes were drawn to the opposite 22′, as the Saints rallied and repeatedly razored into the resilient Bath defence.Â Â Â Pure perseverance finally broke the barrier, when a skilful yet quirky backhand off-load from Myler gifted Jamie Elliot the key to unlock the Bath defence, and he crossed the line in the corner.
What followed came as a surprise to all.Â Â With injuries to both Rob Webber and Ross Batty, it looked as though Bath might have to play the last quarter with uncontested scrums until replacement loose-head Nathan Catt stepped in to deputise at hooker.
But Courtney Lawes made Bath’s life a little easier with ill-discipline and he was yellow carded shortly after, for taking out Watson.Â So it was still game on.
Every tackle and every collision contributed to this crucial contest, as the likes of Carl Fearns and the Bath pack marked their territory and the extra urgency injected when Peter Stringer came on to replace Micky Young, sparked a new lease of life into the Bath attacking army.
With three minutes to the final whistle, Ford’s boot took Bath into a narrow lead.Â Â But the game was not won.Â Â The restart saw Anthony Perenise yellow carded, after a horrendous tip-tackle onÂ Mike Haywood, and a composed Myler converted, taking the score to 19-19.
Even then, when the eighty minute mark had passed and I thought the game was done and dusted, the TMO was consulted on what initially looked like foul play from Lawes on Ford.Â Â But on further review, it was clear Lawes had pulled out of the tackle and the referee, Matthew Carley ended the game abruptly and some may say controversially.
A brave decision by Referee Carley – taking it right down to the wire – but I got the impression Bath were left a little deflated on his final whistle.Â Â It had been a game of huge intensity, physicality and character – however the result did more to strengthen Northamptonâ€™s position in the table than Bathâ€™s.
Psychologically, I wonder who will take more from this encounter as Bath and Saints prepare to do battle once more in the final of the Amlin Cup at the end of the month.
Full Time Bath 19-19 Northampton Saints
By Rhiannon Chandler-Day
To see more from Rhiannon, please check out her blog at: rhiannonsrugbyunionblog.blogspot.co.ukrhiannonsrugbyunionblog.blogspot.co.uk