Saracens edge Bath Rugby in gritty battle of the play-off contenders

Bath Rugby slipped out of the top two in the Gallagher Premiership with a narrow 15-12 defeat to Saracens at the Recreation Ground on Friday night with the defending champions bringing a Test match approach to the task at hand.

A week after Bristol blew Newcastle Falcons away 85-14 by kicking the ball only four times, Saracens launched an ariel bombardment on the Blue, Black and White with 47 kicks reigning down from the skies from the boot of the London side as a 78th minute Owen Farrell’s penalty proved the difference between the two title contesting sides.

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Farrell’s 78th-minute strike meant that Saracens climbed above Bath into second place, three points behind leaders Northampton, following a performance that crackled with intensity. But they had to withstand a fierce Bath fightback from 12 points adrift at the break as tries either side of the hour-mark from replacements Thomas du Toit and Cameron Redpath, plus a Ben Spencer conversion, threatened a famous home win.

Saracens took charge through first-half tries by wings Tom Parton and Rotimi Segun, while player of the matcher Farrell kicked a conversion and game-winning penalty.

Despite the set-back, Bath will remain in the play-off places come the end of the weekend thanks to their losing bonus point, with matches away at Newcastle and at home to Saints to come in the final two regular season games.

Bath were eager to put pace and width on the ball, with centres Max Ojomoh and Ollie Lawrence prominent during promising early flurries, but Saracens struck first after 12 minutes as they stuck to their script of kicking the leather off the ball and chasing hard to compete under it, playing a low risk game until their opportunities arose.

Full-back Elliot Daly and centre Lucio Cinti worked their way in behind Bath’s defence, before Cinti’s midfield partner Nick Tompkins fired out a long pass and Parton finished comfortably to open the scoring. Farrell missed the touchline conversion attempt, but Saracens were off and running in front of England head coach Steve Borthwick.

Things ramped up a gear 10 minutes before half-time when Saracens’ England lock Maro Itoje made head-to-head contact with Bath number eight Alfie Barbeary. Referee Luke Pearce consulted with television match official David Rose before brandishing a yellow card, meaning 10 minutes off for Itoje when it could conceivably have been considerably worse.

Saracens made progress approaching the interval when prop Eroni Mawi’s pass sent number eight Tom Willis clear, and it took an outstanding tackle by Bath wing Will Muir on Gonzalez to prevent a try. But Bath’s defence was then unlocked courtesy of a well-placed Farrell kick, and Segun touched down in the corner before Farrell’s conversion opened up a 12-0 interval lead.

A try saving ankle tap tackle from Joe Cokanasigs was required to stop Saracens scoring a third try after half time, and it took Bath 56 minutes to establish any kind of threat inside Saracens’ 22, yet they made it count after two driven lineouts in quick succession ended with Du Toit crashing over close range.

Bath were at it again six minutes later, inflicting more pain on Saracens’ defence as another relentless driving maul this time delivered a try for Redpath, with Spencer’s conversion levelling things up early in the final quarter.

But some opportunism from Farrell inside his own 22 set up a thrilling Saracens counter-attack that saw Nick Tompkins out Theo Dan through a gap allowing the England hooker to march 40m down-field before kicking long and then catching Redpath inside his deadball area after the centre had taken the ball back over his own tryline and created a scrum platform only five metres from Bath’s line.

And Bath could not hold out, conceding a penalty that Farrell duly landed from in front of the posts.

The closing moments were remarkably frantic with Muir knocking back the restart from Ben Spencer for Charlie Ewels to gather and carry hard into the opposition 22, but in the heat of the battle Bath lost their composure and possession as Du Toit had the ball knocked out his grasps just 10m out from the tryline.

A final lost lineout from the hosts saw any hopes for a late comeback vanish, setting Johann van Graan's men on a more difficult course to the final in June.

Bath Rugby: 15 Matt Gallagher, 14 Joe Cokanasiga, 13 Ollie Lawrence, 12 Max Ojomoh, 11 Will Muir, 10 Orlando Bailey, 9 Ben Spencer, 1 Beno Obano, 2 Niall Annett, 3 Will Stuart, 4 Quinn Roux, 5 Charlie Ewels, 6 Ted Hill, 7 Sam Underhill, 8 Alfie Barbeary

Replacements: 16 Tom Dunn, 17 Thomas du Toit, 18 Archie Griffin, 19 Jacques du Plessis, 20 Josh Bayliss, 21 Louis Schreuder, 22 Cameron Redpath, 23 Jaco Coetzee.

Saracens: 15 Elliot Daly, 14 Rotimi Segun, 13 Lucio Cinti, 12 Nick Tompkins, 11 Tom Parton, 10 Owen Farrell (c), 9 Aled Davies; 1 Eroni Mawi, 2 Jamie George, 3 Christian Judge, 4 Maro Itoje, 5 Nick Isiekwe, 6 Juan Martin Gonzalez, 7 Ben Earl, 8 Tom Willis

Replacements: 16 Theo Dan, 17 Mako Vunipola, 18 Marco Riccioni, 19 Hugh Tizard, 20 Billy Vunipola, 21 Toby Knight, 22 Ivan van Zyl, 23 Alex Goode.

Referee: Luke Pearce

Assistant Referees: Craig Maxwell-Keys and John Meredith

TMO: David Rose