Saracens return to winning ways against Bath
May 4, 2013
Saracens' Owen Farrell tackle Bath's Tom Heathcote and picks up a yellow card in the process
© Getty Images
Saracens ensured they would finish top of the Aviva Premiership regular season standings with a hard-earned 23-14 victory over Bath at Allianz Park.
The home side were nowhere near their best, playing only in fits and starts, but still did enough to gain a home semi-final against Northampton next weekend following tries from England internationals Chris Ashton, Mako Vunipola and Owen Farrell.
Farrell ended up with 13 points but he had a mixed game, missing with three kicks which would have provided his side with a more comprehensive victory. In addition, the centre picked up a first-half yellow card which was the catalyst for Bath to get a foothold in the game.
The visitors, who looked set to be overrun as they trailed 11-0 early on, scored tries through Rob Webber and Horacio Agulla but Tom Heathcote missed with two easy penalties to extinguish any hopes of Heineken Cup rugby for the west country outfit next season.
Saracens rested Alex Goode and were without Brad Barritt with an ankle injury but were able to include their three players who were this week selected for the Lions - Farrell, Vunipola and Matt Stevens. Simon Taylor and Michael Claassens were able to make their final appearances for Bath but Stephen Donald was not as fortunate being a late withdrawal with a rib injury.
Donald's replacement, Heathcote, had the first chance for points but he missed with his 30-metre penalty attempt. After 11 minutes, Saracens took the lead. A lineout take from Alistair Hargreaves on the Bath 22 was driven forward with some pace putting the visitors rapidly on the back foot. That provided Neil De Kock with a simple opportunity to put Ashton in for the first try.
Bath suffered two more blows when first Guy Mercer was yellow carded for denying Saracens a clear try-scoring opportunity and then from the resulting penalty Farrell extended the lead to 8-0 at the end of the first quarter.
A second try for the hosts soon followed with Vunipola forcing his way over from close range, but, as with Ashton's score, Farrell was once again unable to convert. Almost immediately, Saracens looked to have scored another try when Ashton crossed the line only for the TMO to rule that Vunipola's final offload was marginally forward.
On the half-hour, Farrell received a yellow card for a dangerous high tackle on Heathcote which coincided with the return of Mercer to give Bath some respite. They first stemmed the tide before taking advantage of their numerical superiority with Webber finishing off a lineout drive for the try which Heathcote converted.
Early in the second half, Heathcote had a chance to further reduce the arrears but badly mishit a 30-metre penalty and Bath were soon made to pay for their profligacy. De Kock made another defence-splitting break to send Farrell over for a converted try and at 20-7 with half-an-hour remaining, Saracens were in control of the match.
Bath refused to lie down though, picking up their second try when Agulla brushed aside some weak defence for a try which Heathcote converted. Replacement Tom Biggs then almost scored another as he was narrowly foiled following a splendid kick and chase before a second penalty from Farrell extended Saracens' lead to 23-14 with 10 minutes remaining and they comfortably held on.
Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall was full of praise for his side who top the table at the end of the season for the first time. "It is a big achievement as Saracens have always struggled for consistency. However, it's now our fourth consecutive semi-final and the first time that we have finished top at the end of a regular season."
But McCall conceded it was not a perfect performance by any means. "We were a bit mixed and weren't precise enough," he said, "We were very good in the first 20 minutes and had Mako Vunipola's pass to Chris Ashton not been judged to be forward it would have been a more relaxing afternoon for us. We have to give credit to Bath for they made it difficult for us but I am thrilled how well we have come back from last Sunday's defeat by Toulon."
Bath assistant coach Mike Ford said: "We showed great character to get it back to 20-14 and I thought that we might sneak it as at that stage as we were only one try away from European qualification. We had a scrum in front of their posts but were penalised and a late penalty from Owen Farrell was a bridge too far for us."
He also admitted that not qualifying for the European Cup was a blow. "It all came down to this final game but we let points slip against sides below us," he said. "It's not all despondency though as we believe we have recruited well for next season bringing in some good young English talent. We are aiming to get the culture right at the club, it is not quite right at present but hopefully our efforts will come to fruition for next season."
Bath's David Wilson fends off Saracens' Charlie Hodgson © Getty Images
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
The rolling maul is becoming an increasingly potent attacking weapon. Conor O'Shea looks at the difficulties of stopping it
The news of James Horwill, Adam Ashley-Cooper and Dan Carter's respective transfers will open the floodgates, writes Tom Hamilton
Kiwi coaches can be found far and wide across the globe, and Murray Mexted believes the All Blacks benefit every bit as much as their rivals
Clermont, Toulon, player burnout, Sam Burgess and a farewell to Adams Park - Monday Maul looks back at the weekend's action