Bath secured a GUINNESS PREMIERSHIP play-off place – and an away tie against Leicester – after subduing an indisciplined Saracens side at the Recreation Ground.
It is 13 years since Bath were last crowned English champions, but they kept their title hopes alive by thwarting the European Challenge Cup semi-finalists.
They now face the Tigers on May 9 though, in a Walkers Stadium repeat of the clubs’ Heineken Cup quarter-final clash two weeks ago which Leicester won 20-15.
Fly-half Ryan Davis, Bath’s tactical controller in the absence of knee injury victim Butch James, delivered an assured display, booting four penalties and three conversions to deliver a 100 per cent strike-rate.
But Saracens did not help themselves, with three players yellow-carded as their hopes of a top-seven GUINNESS PREMIERSHIP finish evaporated.
Saracens can still qualify for next season’s Heineken Cup, but only if they beat Challenge Cup opponents Northampton next Friday night, then defeat Bourgoin or Worcester in the final.
Bath clinched the points when lock Peter Short touched down 17 minutes into the second half, his try following a first-half try by wing Andrew Higgins, before Matt Banahan claimed a late breakaway score.
But their failure to claim a try-scoring bonus point means they must visit Leicester, rather than second-placed Harlequins, who will host London Irish.
Saracens opened the scoring with a first-minute try by wing Chris Wyles, while Noah Cato also crossed, yet they never seriously threatened an away win as Bath gradually took control through their more industrious forwards.
The home side were without injured backs James, Joe Maddock and Alex Crockett as they targeted a play-off place, while England skipper Steve Borthwick led Saracens on his first Recreation Ground appearance since quitting Bath last summer.
Borthwick had reason to smile inside the opening minute as Saracens struck with a try after just 27 seconds.
Bath went missing in defence, allowing Saracens flanker Andy Saull to break several tackles and free unmarked American wing Wyles, who had a clear run to the line.
Jackson sent the touchline conversion attempt narrowly wide, yet Bath had already been served notice that Saracens had no intention of merely making up numbers.
And there was further woe for Bath midway through the opening quarter when their captain Michael Lipman limped out of the action.
Lipman’s season has been severely disrupted by a series of concussions, then a neck injury during the midweek win against Wasps, so there was a predictability about his latest premature exit.
Saracens should have then increased their lead after Jackson intercepted on halfway, but he lacked the pace and vision to make it count as Bath found themselves ripped open all too easily.
The home side could not settle, and a series of dust-ups off the ball erupted into a mass midfield skirmish which ended with Saracens prop Tom Mercey being sin-binned for punching.
Davis kicked the resulting penalty, and there was no let-up in the game’s relentless nature as Bath forwards Lee Mears and Justin Harrison both required lengthy spells of treatment before being able to continue.
Lions hooker Mears though, his left knee heavily strapped, could barely walk let alone run but he battled gamely on as Bath looked to assert some authority on the contest.
A spell of prolonged Bath pressure reaped its reward seven minutes before the break when Higgins crossed for a try that Davis converted, following his second penalty just four minutes earlier.
Saracens were briefly reduced to 13 men when lock Hugh Vyvyan followed Mercey into the sin-bin, and it could have been worse but Saull escaped punishment following a mid-air challenge on Bath full-back Nick Abendanon.
Jackson reduced Saracens’ arrears with a penalty as the interval approached, and there remained no sign of either side giving an inch.
Jackson and Davis exchanged penalties early in the second half, yet Saracens could not rid themselves of the yellow peril, with Saull sin-binned for a late tackle on Abendanon.
And with the flanker off, Bath struck a telling blow when neat inter-passing between the forwards ended with Short crashing over and Davis converting.
Davis’ fourth successful penalty seemed to put Bath out of sight, and although Cato’s score, converted by Jackson, cut the gap, Banahan’s 70-metre interception score during injury time took Bath past 30 points.
Even after the final whistle of this fractious game players from both sides scrapped before Rob Debney could restore order.