Match Analysis: Bath v Northampton
Bath and Northampton clashed at The Rec in one of their biggest matches of the season. Bath would be looking to cement their place in the top 4 and Northampton would be looking to usurp them. Previously low scoring affairs, this game broke the mould; a strong first half from Bath was matched by a change in tactics from Northampton in the second and combined to produce one of the Premiership games of the season.
This was an important game for both sides, with Bath looking to strengthen their position in the top 4, and Northampton looking to oust them. Going into the game, the balance perhaps lay with Bath, and they would be looking to put the ghosts of their recent defeats against Exeter and Newcastle to rest by seeing out the full 80 minutes of rugby.
Northampton on the other hand came into the game off the back of three victories in the Premiership, and with the knowledge that it had been six years since Bath had beaten them at The Rec.
Statistically, Bath had scored more points on average in-game this season, 22.62 to Northampton’s 18.38, and conceded fewer, 16.62 to Northampton’s 18.08. They were also ahead on tries scored, 2.38 to 1.69, though Northampton edged tries conceded, 1.31 to 1.69. The last five games between the clubs had been low scoring affairs and so the scoreline of 32 points to 30 stands out as something of an anomaly.
An intense tactical battle at the Rec closed with Rhys Priestland slotting 3 points in overtime to seal the game, but Bath will be disappointed to have found themselves in this position given their dominance in the first half.
Todd Blackadder talked about starting the game well, and his team maintained a high intensity through the first half, going in at the break leading 19 points to 6.
Once out on the field for the second half however, it was clear that Mallinder and his staff had seen where they could break Bath down and began to assert themselves. By the 70th minute, their fightback had brought them the lead.
There was little control from either side in the last ten minutes of the game, and almost immediately after Api Ratuniyarawa had crossed for Northampton’s fightback try, Chris Cook went over after a great piece of individual skill. Two minutes later, it was Jamie Gibson’s turn, and Stephen Myler duly converted.
Despite missing a penalty in the closing moments, Priestland was able to make amends after a rushed clearance brought Bath possession, and eventually a penalty deep inside Northampton’s 22.
While the fixture would see one of the club’s favourites, Semesa Rokoduguni, make his 100th appearance, Bath went into the game with an injury list that shows little sign of shrinking, and while there are some wise heads such as Francois Louw, Rhys Priestland and Kahn Fotuali’i in the side, there are also a lot of youngsters. Given the overtime the Bath medical staff are putting in at the moment, it is a testament to this young Bath team that they have put themselves in the position they have this season.
That said, their defeats to Exeter and Newcastle were perhaps born out of inexperience, some of which could be laid at the feet of George Ford, who while enigmatic on the field and capable of producing moments of brilliance, occasionally raises questions regarding his game management. Rhys Priestland continues to prove himself as anything but an understudy, and while his game management is one of his strengths, he perhaps lacks the creative edge that Ford brings to the side.
Northampton went into the game with a strong pack - Alex Waller made his 130th consecutive appearance for the club - but the strength upfront was perhaps not matched in the backs, with Ben Foden starting on the wing for the first time in a decade.
After victories against Sale, Gloucester and Bristol, Northampton were slowly beginning to find their feet after a slow start to the season, and while Mallinder has come under some pressure for the forward orientated approach Northampton have been playing, it was precisely this style that helped them claw their way back into the game.
Bath started the game with a high intensity and a physicality that Northampton could not match. At the gain-line, with possession of the ball, Bath made the yards. In defence, they shut Northampton down and held them back.
They combined this with hard work off the ball, their forwards running some strong supporting lines in the medium channel, which opened up the wide areas. They would then bring the focus to the same forwards in the medium channel, continually asking quesitons of the Northampton defence. Their intensity and unpredictability in attack left Northampton scrambling in defence and after 10 minutes, and a poor tackle from Kieran Brookes, Paul Grant crashed over for the first try of the game.
Northampton on the other hand, unable to find any gaps upfront, looked to spread the ball through the hands of their backs, but they remained largely impotent. When they did look like they were beginning to build some momentum, someone made a mistake and the chance was lost. Clearly they had sat down before the game and analysed how they could beat Bath, but the game-plan left them lacking creativity.
This played into Bath’s hands however, and the midfield duo of Rhys Priestland and Ben Tapuai really ran the show; Priestland’s game management was matched, and perhaps surpassed, by the creativity of Tapuai, who remained assured on the ball. The pair remained calm and read the game well, often pinning Northampton back with a kick for territory, or opening the game up by spreading it wide.
The second half had started much as the first half had finished, Bath in the ascendancy. They were controlling the tempo of the game, and but for some unforced errors could have worked themselves into a strong position. They were continuing their game-plan of combining short sharp attacks in the forwards with wide back moves, but with the addition of more offloads in an effort to open up the game.
However, their stranglehold was not to last. While this felt reminiscent of Bath’s recent defeats, it had much more to do with the tactical changes Northampton made at half time.
Given their lack of attacking flair in the first half, Jim Mallinder will have been thinking about how he could bring his side back into the game, and with a keen eye, he saw the opportunity. Defensively, Bath came up quickly in tight at the ruck, which up until now had nullified the Northampton forwards, who took the ball into contact. The change however, would see the same forwards spread slightly wider and move the ball away from the contact, creating an overlap in the middle channel that would allow their forwards a little more breathing room to get over the gain-line.
Shortly before the hour mark, Northampton started to string a long passage of play together, working their way around the short Bath defence and opening the game up. They would be rewarded in the 58th minute when Ben Foden dived over for the try. Stephen Myler converted and Northampton crept closer.
Northampton now seemed galvanised, and started to build some momentum in the fixture. Big decisions were made when they kicked for the corner rather than goal, and while they came away with nothing in that passage of play, they were rewarded moments later, when Api Ratuniyarawa bouldered through the Bath defence and got the try. Myler’s conversion put Northampton ahead.
The Final 10
The final ten minutes of the game brought one of those rare, but magical, Premiership moments where both teams wanted to win the game, and with so much at stake and such little time left, both threw caution to the wind.
Northampton will feel hard done by after Tapuai’s pass appeared to go forward to Chris Cook, who after a chip and chase dived on the ball for a try. They might have had the last laugh though, after Jamie Gibson went over. Myler converting again to give them a slender 30-29 lead going into the final 5 minutes.
Much like extended periods of the game, it was small errors that proved costly, and when Lee Dickson put the ball out on the full just outside his own 22, hearts must have been in mouths. This however was followed by a simple error from Bath; after the ball was fumbled from the top of the lineout, it fell to Guy Mercer who then took the ball into the maul that was forming. This brought an accidental offside and a scrum to Northampton. There must have been some huge sighs of relief from those clad in green and gold.
It was not over however; the resulting scrum saw a huge shift from Bath, and they earned themselves a penalty. A reprieve, one last final chance to win the game. Priestland, who despite having only missed one kick in twenty-one before the game was having a shaky day from the tee, stepped up. He missed. More sighs from those in green and gold.
Two minutes to go, and surely the agony of these closing moments was over? The game still had more to give however; a rushed clearance from the missed penalty was charged down by Bath and saw them gain possession deep inside Northampton’s 22. Then Wayne Barnes put his arm out; a penalty was coming. Fearing they would lose the advantage, Kahn Fotuali’i tried to push a grubber through to the corner; it bounced off a Northampton player and play went back for the penalty.
Everything hung on this final moment, the ground fell incredibly still; the game poised on a knife edge.
Bath will be pleased to have come through and won this fixture, ensuring they keep pace with the teams above them and move further from the teams tugging at their heels. Northampton on the other hand will be disappointed they couldn’t build on the momentum of their previous fixtures, but with Newcastle, Worcester and Sale their next three opponents, they will be hoping for some solid wins before they meet Leicester Tigers at Franklin’s Gardens.
Overall, the game was an intense tactical battle; Bath’s physicality won through in the opening hour of the game before Northampton found a way to nullify their advantage. Credit must go to Jim Mallinder and his team for turning the game around, but credit too must go to the Bath players who fought right to the very last minute of the game.