‘Gutted’ at letting 14-point lead slip
For the first time ever, Bath Rugby didn’t lose at Allianz Park.
In a normal season, a 17-17 draw is something to be celebrated at the home of the Gallagher Premiership and European Champions Cup holders. But Sunday’s result left Bath’s players, coaches and fans in limbo, nervously waiting to find out if they had done enough to break into the top-four play-offs for the first time since 2015.
The draw left them only three points ahead of coronavirus-hit Sale Sharks, who had benefited from a highly-controversial round 22 postponement against Worcester Warriors. A reported 16 positive tests at the club left that match in doubt.
But had Sale won the that match at the AJ Bell Stadium on Wednesday night they would have nicked fourth place in the table from Bath, and third from Bristol Bears with a four-try bonus point.
But all the uncertainty and debate is now over after yesterday’s announcement that a further eight Sale players and staff had tested positive for coronavirus and therefore meant the club would have to forfeit their final game.
Bath have now confirmed their place in the play-offs, and will play Exeter Chiefs away on Saturday.
Bath started so well against the already-relegated Saracens lining up without the likes of Mako Vunipola, Owen Farrell, Brad Barritt and Alex Goode at wet and windy Allianz Park.
After the ultra-aggressive Sam Underhill and Ruaridh Mcconnochie double-teamed Billy Vunipola straight from the kick-off, Beno Obano opened the scoring in the third minute with a close-range drive.
Bath continued to pressure their hosts into errors and Ben Spencer so impressive since signing from Saracens - showed his speed of thought in the 18th minute when he took a quick-tap penalty, outfoxed the defence and dived over the tryline.
At 14-0, the visitors were looking good for victory and a play-off place. They were leaking penalties at an almighty rate - 11 in the first half alone - but the host’s attacks were coming to nothing due to a mixture of inaccuracy and timely interventions from the likes of Taulupe Faletau in the lineout, or the collective pack effort in the mauls.
Underhill continued to scythe ball carriers down as Spencer’s boxkicking kept his former club guessing. Mike Williams was performing on both sides of the ball and Anthony Watson looked very sharp as he ran back clearance kicks.
Manu Vunipola notched three points for the hosts, but they still had plenty to do to get back into the contest after the break.
Rhys Priestland - 100 per cent from the tee - restored the 14-point lead with a fine long-range effort in the 47 minute and, at that point, the men in yellow looked comfortable.
But, from that point onwards, they wilted. Both Priestland and Watson kicked balls out on the full in the tricky wind.
Replacement Miles Reid and Semesa Rokoduguni somehow conspired to butcher what was a fine try-scoring opportunity down the right. Joe Cokanasiga, on for Ruaridh Mcconnochie, knocked on an unsympathetic Cameron Redpath pass down the left.
Those mistakes gifted Saracens possession, territory and hope of sending their veteran scrum-half Richard Wigglesworth off with a bang after his 250th and final appearance for the club.
Their pack started to edge the close encounters and when Billy Vunipola was impeded as he tried to scoop the ball up from a 5m scrum, referee Wayne Barnes had seen enough to award a penalty try.
With six minutes left, Bath still had a seven-point lead and a playoff spot in their possession but they looked fragile.
Faletau and his lifters stole a close-range lineout too well, if anything. The second-row nuisance, Maro Itoje, reacted quickest, charged through the line and scooped up the loose ball, almost scoring in the process.
A quick recycle, pick and drive saw Tim Swinson - who came out of retirement to join the club who have lost a glut of locks after the salary cap scandal - burrow over. Manu Vunipola had the nerve and technique to slot the all-important conversion to level the scores.
Another Bath knock-on, this time from replacement Lewis Boyce, scuppered any chances of a late yellow surge.
“I’m gutted for the lads,” said downbeat Director of Rugby Stuart Hooper after the game.