Northampton Saints were edged out 30-24 by Bath after a compelling ding-dong battle in the West Country at a sun-drenched Recreation Ground.
Two tries just before half-time turned the game in Saints’ favour, as the Men in Black, Green and Gold took a 19-15 lead into the sheds thanks to scores from Rory Hutchinson and Taqele Naiyaravoro.
The Wallaby winger had already seen his 20th-minute try cancelled out by a quickfire double from Bath, with Sam Underhill and Taulupe Faletau crossing the whitewash to hand the hosts an early advantage.
And while Jacques du Toit and James Grayson exchanged scores before the hour-mark, a Rhys Priestland penalty and last-minute try from Josh Bayliss saw Bath emerge from the clash victorious.
The hosts took a 3-0 lead through Priestland in the third minute, winning a penalty in front of the posts after a clever chip in behind from Jonathan Joseph, but opted for touch as they won another six minutes later – and Saints repelled this attack with Paul Hill and Lewis Ludlam contributing some big defensive shots.
All the early territory was Bath’s, and Alex Coles won a vital penalty in the 15th minute, getting over the ball five metres from his own line after Tommy Freeman had prevented a certain try with a tap tackle on Max Ojomoh.
Things were starting to click for Saints and on 18 minutes the visitors shoved Bath off their own ball at scrum time, but after building a few phases Hill could not quite gather Grayson’s pass 10 metres from the line, and the ball escaped into touch.
However in the 20th minute, Northampton burst into life and took the lead with a slick handling move down the right touchline involving Tom Wood and Courtney Lawes, which sent Naiyaravoro over.
Grayson converted from out wide to make it 7-3, but that advantage lasted less than a minute as Underhill charged down Alex Mitchell’s box kick on the edge of the 22 and was left with the simple task of gathering the ball and dotting down – although Priestland’s conversion attempt was wayward.
And a moment of magic two minutes later from Anthony Watson saw him cut inside a defender, draw the last defender and send Faletau under the posts.
The routine conversion from Priestland was good to make it 15-7, and Bath thought they had a third six minutes before the break, but Watson dropped the ball as he grounded in the corner and in stepped the TMO to rule out the score.
From there it was one-way traffic from Northampton, who produced a fantastic burst before half-time. First a lineout move released Naiyaravoro up the middle whose offload put Hutchinson through a gap, and the Scotland centre used his pace to side-step Joe Cokanasiga and finish brilliantly in the right corner.
And then Naiyaravoro got on the end of another precise handling move from Saints, with the visitors wearing Bath down before sending the winger over in the right corner to hand his side a 19-15 lead.
A breathless finish to that first half continued in the second, with the TMO stepping in again to rule out a Bath try from Ben Spencer with Watson knocking-on in the build-up – although the hosts had their score a couple of minutes later as du Toit forced his way over at the back of a rolling maul.
Naiyaravoro then saw yellow for playing the ball on the floor after Bath broke through the middle of the park, but stern Saints defence from the resulting penalty saw them force a knock-on and clear their lines.
Hutchinson was forced off for an HIA and Saints made a raft of changes, introducing an all-new front row with Connor Tupai also coming on for his first appearance of the season and Tom Litchfield making his senior debut.
And Northampton conjured a bonus-point score despite the player deficit, as once again they built the phases and wore their hosts down before Grayson sniped through a gap and held off Zach Mercer to touch down – although the fly-half could not convert his own kick.
Just after the 60-minute mark, Dingwall was pinged for offside and Priestland put Bath back in front at 25-24, but it could have been worse for Saints as two more Bath tries were correctly chalked off by the TMO in the space of five minutes.
Josh Gillespie and debutant Ollie Newman also entered the fray heading into the final stages, and with two minutes to play, a mistake under the high ball from Cokanasiga gave Saints a great platform to attack from the edge of the 22.
Despite shoving the Bath scrum backwards, no penalty was awarded by referee Ian Tempest to the dismay of Northampton’s bench, and in came Spencer to poach the ball and clear.
And while Saints won back possession and looked for any score to retake the lead, as the clock entered the red, the ball was ripped by Bath and shipped out to Bayliss who streaked into the corner to the delight of the home crowd.
The result had no effect on Northampton’s final Gallagher Premiership position, with the Men in Black, Green and Gold ultimately finishing fifth at the end of a rollercoaster season.