By Josh Black
January 10 2012
Most pundits had Bath down to make the play offs in their informed pre-season predictions, so it was a surprise to see them lingering in the depths of the Premiership with only four wins at the half way point of the season. Then came last week’s convincing win over London Irish and there suddenly seemed to be something to play for. And for the first twenty minutes at Vicarage Road, they had Saracens on the rack.
Outside the ground the merchandisers were selling t-shirts commemorating the nine minutes and nine seconds for which the Saracens line stood firm at the end of last season’s final. Bath, by contrast, took just five minutes to score. A miss-pass by Claasens allowed Carraro to make a half break from Stephen Donald’s pop pass. The centre was brought down by Botha, but as quick ball and an awkward bounce pulled Jackson Wray out of position, Donald was able to exploit a gap and dart in under the posts.
The World Cup winning fly half is certainly beginning to settle in England, and showed plentiful touches of class from both hand and boot, but it was the Bath scrum that threatened to dismantle the home side. After fumbling the kick off gave Saracens an attacking position, a huge shove pushed them off the ball. Yet the reset scrum saw an equally impressive effort, Matt Stevens turning as red as a Fez from his lung-bursting efforts. Farrell’s penalty struck the upright, the first of three kicks to do so between the teams.
Another series of scrums will be the moment that Bath fans believe that the game escaped them. The French referee first gave a free kick to the visitors, then sin-binned Rhys Gill for an infringement after calling for the ball to be used from the base of the collapsed scrum. A penalty try would have been harsh, given that no penalty had been given at that point, but there was no doubt that messrs Catt and Perenise had taught international aspirants Gill and Stevens a thing or two.
Fortunately for the home side, being a man down proved to be an incentive to take the game to Bath, which they did in a ferocious way. David Strettle made the critical line break after the front row made the dents and a beautifully delayed pass by Alex Goode opened a gap in the defence, but it was former Bath skipper, and England’s forgotten man, Steve Borthwick who barged over from close range.
The two sides traded penalties, with Farrell hitting the same post once more before firing the Men in Black into a half time lead. It was to be a frustrating night for the England prospect, with four kicks missed in total and one horrendously misjudged pass when he had run out of options entirely, yet there were flashes of determined running, and the big kicks were made to count. Relying on the solid platform provided by Alex Goode and the nuisance Andy Saul was making of himself at the breakdown, Saracens were able to get a foothold in a game they might otherwise have been bullied out of.
The second half started badly for Bath, with Donald taking a bad knock and being forced off after just four minutes. His replacement, Tom Heathcote, then hit the post with a penalty, before a raft of front row replacements for Bath took the momentum out of the game. Saracens, meanwhile, struggled to turn possession into line breaks, with Goode being wrapped up on almost every kick return and the lineout wobbling at times.
That said, it was the home side that was sharpest going into the first quarter, first with Goode going on an improbable mazy run and then with Wyles snatching the try that would make the game safe, stepping inside the defender and scrambling over in style. Farrell’s conversion and subsequent penalty threatened to deny Bath even the losing bonus point, but the visitors piled on the pressure and Heathcote made good the last kick of the game.
As a study in reacting to adversity, Saracens again proved their mental strength as a unit. Yet again, the second half performance dipped in intensity, particularly in the third quarter. The importance of the grizzled veteran, Carlos Nieto, can hardly be doubted, given his impact when Gill was sat on the bench, and the backs, lethal on occasion, have yet to find the key to creating gaps more ruthlessly. Purists will debate whether this match showed the scrum to be alive and well, or dead in the water. Still, this was one of the most entertaining matches of the season so far, and a good point for Saracens to take stock.
Saracens (13) 26
Tries: Borthwick, Wyles
Cons: Farrell 2
Pens: Farrell 4
Bath (10) 19
Pens: Donald, Heathcote 2
Saracens: Goode; Strettle, Farrell, B. Barritt, Wyles; Hodgson, Spencer; Gill, Smit, Stevens; Borthwick, Botha; Wray, Saull, Joubert.
Replacements: Short for Strettle (71), Powell for Hodgson (71), Stringer for Spencer (54), George for Gill (67), Nieto for Stevens (30), Kruis for Borthwick (71), Melck for Joubert (54), Du Plessis for Nieto (78).
Sin Bin: Gill (16).
Bath: Abendanon; Woodburn, Carraro, Banahan, Biggs; Donald, Claassens; Catt, Batty, Perenise; Attwood, Caldwell; Beattie, Louw, Taylor.
Replacements: Heathcote for Donald (44), Beech for Catt (51), Dixon for Batty (64), Wilson for Perenise (51), Skirving for Beattie (55).
Referee: Pascal Gauzere (France).