They started the weekend in sixth, then the match in eighth, but Bath finished the day in fourth, in the play-off zone. They hold that precious seat courtesy of a bonus-point win over London Irish and an eighth win, to Northampton’s seven. The Saints play on Sunday, but Bath, without exactly wowing anyone, proved sufficiently accurate at the set piece to announce themselves as contenders for whenever this curious season might stagger to an end.
Their main coup in the off-midseason was to sign Ben Spencer, one of the few players to choose to leave Saracens after their relegation. He announced himself in happy fashion. Pretty much his first touch was to intercept Curtis Rona’s inside ball, just as Irish were pressing on the Bath 22, only five minutes in, and streak clear down the left touchline.
A dream start, then, to Spencer’s Bath career, but he allowed his forwards to take over for the next half an hour or so. Tom Dunn was the beneficiary with two further tries, as Bath opened up a 17-0 by the 22nd minute. The Exiles were powerless, as Bath took advantage of a penalty count heavily in their favour to work the corners.
After captain Charlie Ewels secured one attacking lineout, Dunn broke away from the advancing maul to score Bath’s second. He was in place to steer home the next driving maul, too, this one set up from Taulupe Faletau’s securing of another lineout after a penalty to the corner.
The rest of the match, let alone the season, seemed to stretch out endlessly for the visitors, but they pulled themselves together on the approach to half-time. Rona might have been at fault for Spencer’s opening cameo, but he and his equally muscular mate in the London Irish midfield, Terence Hepetema, were starting to punch a few dents, if not quite holes, into the Bath midfield. Further heavyweight carriers followed up, as Irish edged closer, Sekope Kepu, Albert Tuisue, until Nick Phipps put Rona through a gap a couple of minutes before the break.
Paddy Jackson pulled back another three points 10 minutes into the second half, after Faletau failed to roll away from the tackle, one of the game’s trendy penalties for the time being. Irish were within a score, but it was not for long.
The otherwise impressive Ben Donnell’s offence on the floor a few minutes later would have been outrageous whatever the directives du jour. That allowed Rhys Priestland to re-establish a 10-point lead for the home side, and on the hour Jonathan Joseph stole the limelight as only he can.
A heavy-duty carry by Josh Matavesi set up a maul, from which further carries had Bath deep into the Irish 22. Faletau chose to go blind from the latest phase, and Ewels’s flashing hands belied his status as hod-carrier to release Joseph for an acrobatic leap into the corner.
That secured Bath the bonus point and, if there had been any doubt, the game. Irish were by now lacklustre again, struggling particularly on their own ball at the lineout, which Bath ransacked mercilessly. The home team, though, remained immaculate on theirs, and duly collected their fifth try with 10 minutes to go, their third from a line-out drive, this time Jack Walker, Dunn’s replacement, steering the maul.
The misgivings many still harbour over the driven line-out were in evidence in the last five minutes, when London Irish performed exactly the same routine as Bath had, suggesting odds forever stacked in the attacking team’s favour. Matt Cornish, the replacement hooker, finished off another steadily advancing maul, this one clad in the visitors’ white.
It was a token for the Exiles. They remain, like so many, in a hinterland between seasons. Bath, though, can feel the energy of motivation return.