- BATH 19 - 19 NORTHAMPTON
Bath and Northampton played out a dramatic 19-19 draw under the Recreation Ground floodlights - a result which still leaves the Aviva Premiership play-off places in doubt.
Second-placed Saints are not absolutely sure of a home semi-final and Bath, in third, can still be denied a play-off place by Harlequins, who they meet next Saturday in the final round of games.
The highlight of an incident-packed game was a stunning individual try by Bath fly-half George Ford who was responsible for all his side's points. Saints' try was scored by left wing Jamie Elliott with Stephen Myler's boot responsible for the rest of their points.
The game ended in controversy when Courtney Lawes was flagged by touch judge Ashley Rowden for a late hit on Ford, within kicking range. But referee Matthew Carley overruled him after checking the TV replay.
Northampton, buoyed by a fifth minute penalty from Myler, spent the first quarter camped in and around the Bath 22. The pressure was unrelenting as the home defence was forced to repulse wave after wave of attacks.
It was one of many do-or-die tackles that ended Rob Webber's match after just 16 minutes, the hooker getting his knee trapped as he felled number eight Sam Dickinson. It was agonisingly bad luck for Webber only just back from a 10-week absence with ankle trouble.
Ross Batty came off the bench and immediately got stuck in to his defensive duties and Bath were relieved to see a drop goal attempt by Myler drift wide.
Although rarely out of their own half, the one ray of hope for Bath was in their scrummaging which earned them a penalty which Ford kicked to the corner. Saints stopped the catch-and-drive but eventually had to confront the Bath scrum again and folded under pressure, allowing Ford to kick an equalising penalty on 29 minutes.
Myler's hanging restart gave rise to another 'tackle in the air' ruling by the TMO but only a penalty rather than a yellow card against Dave Attwood - and Myler's kick was wide anyway. Almost straight away the fly-half was offered a simpler chance to put Northampton 6-3 ahead.
The lead was short-lived however as Bath, winning more ball in the visitors' half and looking more confident as a result, forced Saints to drift offside at a ruck and Ford was on target again. He might have given his side a half-time lead but was wide with a drop goal attempt with the last kick of the half.
Bath came out all guns firing after the break. Ford was wide with a penalty kick but did not let that faze him as he responded with a brilliant individual try on 45 minutes.
Referee Carley was playing advantage to Bath when Ford evaded a lunging tackle by Lawes, slipped between two more Northampton forwards and outpaced Ben Foden to score by the posts, then converted his own try.
The lead lasted only eight minutes though as Northampton forced a succession of penalties to build pressure in the Bath 22 and Myler deftly slipped a pass to Jamie Elliott to finish off in the left corner. Myler drew the sides level with the conversion.
Unfortunately for Bath, Batty joined Webber on the sidelines with a shoulder injury, which left only replacement loosehead Nathan Catt to fill in at hooker - and he was prepared to scrummage too. Bath won the resulting penalty and Ford banged it over from nearly 50 metres.
Northampton then lost Lawes to the sin-bin for needlessly taking out Anthony Watson off the ball as the match entered the last quarter.
They were still dangerous, as George Pisi showed by touching down from a ball by Elliott but the score was disallowed for a forward pass. It was left to Myler again to level the scores at 16-16 with a 67th minute penalty.
With flanker Guy Mercer now tasked with line-out throwing, Bath's set piece was now anything but an advantage. Ford again attempted a drop goal with five minutes remaining but the effort was mis-hit.
With the tireless Carl Fearns continuing to batter away in midfield, Bath forced a priceless penalty at the breakdown and Ford made it 19-16 with two minutes remaining.
The drama did not end there as Anthony Perenise was shown a yellow card for a dangerous tackle on Mike Hayward. Myler stepped up and converted the penalty to earn the draw.
– Mike Ford, Head Coach, Bath
People say we can't compete against the top two but we've shown we can.
Physically, we did well. That was a bit of a statement from us tonight.
We've been pleased with our pack all year but they've got a good pack too. We're playing them in the Amlin final and we could possibly meet them in the play-off semi-finals as well. They're a good side, and in the first 25 minutes they had us under a lot of pressure.
We went in at half-time pretty happy at 6-6 but we should have seen the game out tonight.
I think it was a fair result but we're disappointed with that last play because the referee put his arm out and we took the snap drop goal, thinking we had the penalty.
We are massively disappointed with the use of the TMO but at the same time we shouldn't have conceded the penalty which made it 19-19.
– Jim Mallinder, Director of Rugby, Northampton
I think the result was probably just about fair.
They've got a big, heavy scrum there, with two international props. They defend well and they've got exciting runners out wide - and George Ford makes them tick. But we know we're a good side as well, ball in hand.
It was a close contest and when we play them again in the Amlin Cup final it's going to be equally as close.
I was a little bit disappointed with some of our play, to be honest. We put ourselves under pressure getting out of our half. We weren't as accurate as we should have been.
We should have kicked the ball off the field but we didn't, and gave them opportunities to counter-attack.
We defended very well generally but we gave them two or three easy kicks at goal. In the big games, we need to improve.