Bath 22 Northampton Saints 13
A muscular, dogged performance from Bath, underpinned by some formidable scrummaging, snuffed out the Premiership’s only remaining unbeaten record as Northampton faded into the West Country gloom.
The image that encapsulated the afternoon came with just nine minutes to go as the hosts’ starting front-rowers, Beno Obano, Tom Dunn and try-scoring tighthead prop Will Stuart, left the field, embracing on the way, to a standing ovation.
Zach Mercer had just benefitted from their set-piece craft and grunt with a close-range finish. In the end, it was so comfortable for Bath, bottom of the table before kick-off, that a red card for wing Aled Brew with half an hour to go had been forgotten.
Afterwards, Bath director of rugby Stuart Hooper admitted that his team had aimed to “suffocate” Saints, who began proceedings with three wins from three in league competition and 13 tries.
“We needed to squeeze them,” he said. “Credit to the players, their effort and application was unbelievable.”
Northampton are a composed, cohesive team and found themselves ahead within 90 seconds. From the first scrum of the game, James Grayson charged-down the clearance of opposite number Rhys Priestland. Scotland centre Rory Hutchinson, who did not make Gregor Townsend’s final Rugby World Cup squad, dribbled into the dead-ball area and dotted down.
Grayson missed the conversion but extended Saints’ lead to 8-0 with a penalty. However, Will Chudley replied with a scampering solo try. Although the morning rain had eased, a stodgy surface suited Bath’s pack.
On the half-hour, Priestland landed a penalty from 30 metres that put his team 10-8 ahead. It stayed that way until the break, but there were encouraging moments for Saints. Hutchinson oozed class, cutting incisive angles and throwing looping passes.
Roaming right wing Tom Collins, an intelligent and lively runner, is relishing life under Chris Boyd. His breaks drew two fine cover tackles from Bath. The first came from Chudley and the second from full-back Freddie Burns, who had already cut down Taqele Naiyaravoro bravely.
Brew’s 48th-minute red card was a strange one. Bath had moved the ball wide to their Welsh wing, whose chip ahead was deflected by Saints full-back Furbank. Brew followed through, raising his forearm into Furbank’s neck. Referee Ian Tempest surveyed a number of big-screen replays, both slow-motion and real-time, before dismissing Brew.
Roared on by a home crowd that were convinced of glaring injustice, Bath’s heavy men responded. Josh McNally stole the lineout, Jamie Roberts carved up-field and, following a breakdown penalty and a powerful maul, impressive Stuart shunted over.
Tom Wood brought Saints back to within two points of their understaffed opponents on the hour-mark but Ben Franks saw yellow with Saints on the back foot.
The hosts opted for a scrum. Northampton emptied their bench, but the fresh legs could not help. After six minutes of collapsing scrums and re-sets, replacement tighthead Paul Hill was sin-binned. Mercer eventually burrowed over and Priestland converted for a nine-point cushion.
Both sides head into Champions Cup action now, Bath hosting Ulster and Northampton welcoming Lyon. Rugby World Cup reinforcements are on the way, although Saints will be most grateful for the arrival of 108-cap New Zealand tighthead Owen Franks.
Scores: 5-0 Hutchinson try, 8-0 Grayson penalty, 8-5 Chudley try, 8-7 Priestland conversion, 8-10 Priestland penalty, 8-15 Stuart try, 13-15 Wood try, 13-20 Mercer try, 13-22 Presitland conversion
Bath: F Burns; S Rokoduguni (G Hamer-Webb, 8 (C Cook, 60-70), M Wright, J Roberts, A Brew; R Priestland, W Chudley; B Obano (L Boyce, 72), T Dunn (J Walker, 72), W Stuart (C Judge, 72); J McNally (E Stooke, 60), C Ewels, T Ellis, J Bayliss, Z Mercer.
Replacements: M Williams, J Willison
Northampton Saints: G Furbank (A Tuala, 48-60); T Collins (E Painter 71), F Dingwall, R Hutchinson, T Naiyaravoro; J Grayson, H Taylor (J Mitchell, 55); B Franks, M Haywood (J Fish 64), E Painter (P Hill 64); D Ribbans, A Moon (A Ratuniyarawa, 59), T Wood (T Trinder 64-74, Coles 74), J Gibson, T Harrison.
Replacement: F Strachan
Referee: Ian Tempest