Bath Chronicle

‘Gut­ted’ at let­ting 14-point lead slip

- Daniel Evans Sports · Soccer · Rugby · Worcester Warriors · Worcester · Bristol · Bristol Bears · Exeter Chiefs · Mako Vunipola · Owen Farrell · Sam Underhill · Billy Vunipola · Bath Rugby · Sale Sharks · Exeter · Brad Barritt · Toby Faletau · Joe Cokanasiga

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.

 ?? Pics: Henry Browne/getty Im­ages ?? An­thony Wat­son of Bath Rugby is tack­led by Jack­son Wray of Sara­cens
Pics: Henry Browne/getty Im­ages An­thony Wat­son of Bath Rugby is tack­led by Jack­son Wray of Sara­cens
 ??  ?? Rhys Pri­est­land of Bath Rugby kicks a penalty
Rhys Pri­est­land of Bath Rugby kicks a penalty
 ?? Pic: Henry Browne/getty Im­ages ?? Ben Spencer of Bath Rugby kicks past Joel Kpoku of Sara­cens
Pic: Henry Browne/getty Im­ages Ben Spencer of Bath Rugby kicks past Joel Kpoku of Sara­cens

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