Bath 22 Northampton 13
November is shaping up to be a month for destructive scrummaging, and Bath followed the lead of world champions South Africa by shoving Northampton Saints into submission at The Rec.
Defying a 48th-minute red card for wing Aled Brew, delivered by referee Ian Tempest after a forearm to the throat of Saints full-back George Furbank, the hosts ended up fairly comfortable victors.
Set-piece dominance and dogged defence stifled Northampton on a grey afternoon. With just nine minutes left, after Zach Mercer had darted over from the base of another powerful scrum, Bath’s starting front-rowers left to a rousing reception.
Beno Obano, Tom Dunn and tighthead prop Will Stuart, who had earlier shunted across the whitewash for what he called a “one-metre flop-over special”, certainly deserved it.
“I’ve been coming to games at The Rec for a long time,” said Bath director of rugby Stuart Hooper. “It’s a while since I’ve seen a front row get a standing ovation like that.
“They put in a huge amount of diligence and accuracy into what they do. You need that in the Premiership. Sometimes there is a magnifying glass on it and there was today because it was never going to be a game full of kick-counter tries. It was going to be about our boys up front delivering and they did that.”
Northampton arrived with three wins from three league outings and were ahead within 90 seconds when James Grayson charged down opposite number Rhys Priestland and outstanding Saints centre Rory Hutchinson pounced.
Grayson missed the conversion but promptly extended Northampton’s advantage to 8-0 with a penalty. Although Hutchinson and roaming right wing Tom Collins posed problems, Bath forged a half-time lead thanks to Will Chudley’s try – a solo scurry through the middle – and the boot of Priestland. Freddie Burns’ brave tackling at full-back was important, too.
Ironically, Brew’s dismissal proved a catalyst for Bath. Northampton surrendered a promising lineout and Stuart burrowed over minutes later to make it 15-8. Although Tom Wood’s try brought Saints close on the hour-mark, loosehead Ben Franks was sin-binned as the hosts exerted pressure.
That forced Chris Boyd to bring on 21 year-old Toby Trinder, and Bath scented blood. A pivotal 12-minute period of scrums – punctuated by penalties, free-kicks and re-sets as backs jogged up and down to stay warm – splintered Northampton and brought another yellow card for tighthead prop Paul Hill. Eventually Mercer scored.
A typically phlegmatic Boyd suggested afterwards that Saints would have been better off conceding points at the start of that period.
“We’ve got to learn to bite our mouth guard and hold in,” he said. “They weren’t trying to play the game. They were trying to scrum for penalties. Well, I say they weren’t trying to play the game. That was their gameplan.”
Helpfully, Boyd will integrate new signing Owen Franks, the 108-cap New Zealand tighthead, this Sunday against Lyon. Matt Proctor, a one-cap All Black, and five World Cup returnees could feature as well. Courtney Lawes, Lewis Ludlam and Piers Francis of England, Wales fly-half Dan Biggar and South Africa scrum-half Cobus Reinach are all in contention.
Interestingly, Neal Hatley is among Bath’s contingent of reinforcements. The former England scrum guru has returned from Japan and joined Hooper’s backroom team with a remit to oversee forwards and defence. Stuart, just 23, should continue to press his Test credentials.
Bath begin their own Champions Cup campaign against Ulster on Saturday lunchtime. Hooper has met with each of his England contingent – Sam Underhill, Jonathan Joseph, Anthony Watson, Joe Cokanasiga and Ruaridh McConnochie – and will decide which ones to deploy. “I’m sure we’ll see some of them,” he said.