Northampton Saints fell to a narrow 22-23 defeat after a second-half comeback from Bath Rugby in the first Gallagher Premiership fixture of 2021 at Franklin’s Gardens.
A second-half score from Zach Mercer, alongside the accurate boot of Rhys Priestland, saw the visitors overcome a nine-point deficit at the interval.
Saints’ first chance came in the tenth minute. Off a well-constructed set play, Piers Francis burst into the 22 on a hard line. The ball was kept alive as Rory Hutchinson had the chance to sprint to the corner, only for a last-ditch tackle from Miles Reid to dislodge the ball from his grasp metres from the line.
Moments later Reid fell foul of referee Ian Tempest after playing the ball illegally on the deck. Turning down a kick in front of the posts, Saints took the aggressive option and went to the corner.
It proved to be the right call; after Sam Matavesi was held short of the line at the back of a driving maul, James broke down the short side, riding tackles from Will Chudley and Will Muir with a powerful finish – his first Premiership try.
Further pressure inside the 22 allowed James to double his tally. Taqele Naiyaravoro’s powerful carry and trademark offload released the scrum-half for an easy run to the line, before Francis’ well-struck conversion opened up a 12-0 lead.
Despite Saints’ dominance at the set-piece, it was a scrum penalty that allowed Rhys Priestland to get Bath on the board. It was his 28th consecutive successful kick this season, equalling the Premiership record.
The response from Saints was to score their third of the half. Off another lineout inside the 22, the backs used plenty decoy runners to ask questions of the Bath defence. Hutchinson’s line sucked in multiple defenders, offering George Furbank enough space to send Freeman over from close range for his first Saints score. Francis tacked on the extras to leave the score 19-3.
But the half ended with an extended period of Bath pressure inside the 22. Despite winning a scrum against the head and a Nick Auterac try-saving tackle on Priestland, Bath continued to attack deep in Saints territory.
Their reward with the last play of the half was a Zac Mercer score from a carry close to the line. Priestland converted to make it 19-10 at the break.
James was hungry for his third, and he nearly secured it five minutes into the second half. After quick hands sent Freeman down the flank and into the 22, James tried pick and go only to be held up over the line.
Though Bath survived the five-metre scrum, Saints thought they had secured the bonus point minutes later through Ludlam. After another powerful carry by Proctor into the 22, the skipper reached out to dot the ball over the line, only for another late tackle – this one from Muir – to dislodge the ball.
It was a good middle period for the visitors as two further Priestland penalties narrowed the gap to just three heading into the last quarter.
Saints needed a spark to wrestle back the momentum, and they got it through Naiyaravoro. Fielding a kick just inside his own half, he showed his power in beating two would-be tacklers to get to within five metres of the line, only for Ben Spencer to chop him down.
However, a high tackle moments later by Tom Dunn allowed Francis to stretch the lead back out to six.
A moment of magic from Ben Spencer then turned the game on its head. His chip off the back of a lineout was regathered by Josh Matavesi, before his offload sent Mercer over the line for his second. Priestland’s conversion had Bath ahead by one.
Both sides had try-saving moments close to their own line in the dying moments. For Saints, Ludlam got in over the ball to win a crucial breakdown penalty with his side under pressure. Down the other end, after earlier denying Naiyaravoro, Spencer once again pulled out a big intervention to hold Proctor up over the line.
From the resulting scrum, after giving away one penalty, Bath survived when Saints called for another scrum and were penalised five metres from the line.
That was to be the last attacking chance for Saints as Bath hung on for a narrow win, with Chris Boyd’s side now turning their attentions to bouncing back in next week’s trip to face Harlequins at Twickenham Stoop.