England star Lewis Moody returned from injury just seven days before the Six Nations showdown against France as Bath condemned Northampton to their fourth successive Aviva Premiership Rugby defeat as they won 38-8.
Moody, England captain during this season’s autumn Tests, missed the opening Six Nations victories over Wales and Italy due to a knee ligament problem. But he proved his fitness through a 23-minute run off the bench, helping Bath record their seventh win from the last eight starts in all competitions to move closer towards an Aviva Premiership Rugby play-off place.
There was an injury scare for Scotland coach Andy Robinson though, when Saints centre Joe Ansbro went down following a collision with Bath fly-half Butch James that led to a lengthy stoppage before being helped off.
England wing Matt Banahan was the architect of Bath’s bonus point triumph, scoring three tries and brilliantly creating another for Australian centre Matt Carraro, while Olly Barkley added five conversions and a penalty, including the extras for Sam Vesty’s late touchdown.
Saints could only manage a Greig Tonks try and Stephen Myler penalty in reply as they suffered their heaviest defeat of the season. It is now almost three months since Northampton won an Aviva Premiership Rugby game. Bath though, are moving through the gears, climbing three places into sixth and standing just two points adrift of the play-off zone as they prepare for back-to-back west country derbies against Exeter and Gloucester.
Northampton went into action without England quartet Ben Foden, Chris Ashton, Dylan Hartley and Tom Wood, plus injured lock Courtney Lawes, while wing Paul Diggin (shoulder) failed a fitness test and was replaced by Scott Armstrong. Bath though, started with Banahan, while prop David Flatman – fresh from agreeing a new three-year contract – packed down alongside Lee Mears and Duncan Bell.
Kick-off was delayed by 20 minutes due to match broadcaster ESPN’s live FA Cup replay between Chelsea and Everton requiring penalties to settle it, but Bath were quickly into their stride. Barkley kicked an early penalty, and the home side looked far more creative with ball in hand, reaping their reward after 21 minutes.
Flanker Ben Skirving twice ran aggressively at Northampton’s defensive heart during a prolonged build-up before James then shipped possession wide and Carraro sent Banahan over. Barkley converted, and Northampton continued to struggle with Bath’s off-loading game, especially among the forwards as Skirving and skipper Luke Watson continually made ground.
It was a finger-in-the-dam exercise for Saints, whose cause was hardly helped when Tonks received a yellow card following a high tackle on Bath wing Tom Biggs. A man down as half-time approached, Northampton battled to keep their arrears at just 10 points, but Bath – and Banahan – had other ideas.
Banahan roamed in off his wing, bowled Saints skipper Phil Dowson out of the way, then darted a further 20 metres before delivering a one-handed scoring pass to Carraro. It was a stunning exhibition of power and skill by Banahan and, although Myler opened Northampton’s account with a penalty, Saints could have few complaints about a 17-3 interval deficit.
Bath needed barely three minutes of the second period to resume normal service, and it was Banahan who struck, sprinting over from 30 metres after scrum-half Michael Claassens freed him with an exquisite reverse pass. Barkley again converted, but Banahan had not yet finished with his demolition job on Northampton’s defence as he blasted through centre Jon Clarke’s attempted tackle for the bonus-point try.
Tonks’ touchdown was nothing more than consolation for Saints, although it came from the visitors’ one moment of class after substitute fly-half Shane Geraghty showcased his creative skills. It proved a rare bright spot during a dismal afternoon for Northampton, who looked an ordinary attacking unit without their star backs Foden and Ashton.
And with in-form Gloucester next up at Franklin’s Gardens, there could be more Aviva Premiership Rugby gloom to come before the Six Nations concludes and those key players return.
Bath, typically, had the final say when Vesty cruised over following a sustained spell of pressure, with Barkley’s conversion sealing a 30-point winning margin.