Two late tries and a near-perfect kicking display from Stephen Myler inspired Northampton Saints to a superb comeback win over Bath Rugby in the Amlin Challenge Cup final.
In damp conditions at the Arms Park in Cardiff defences dominated proceedings but while Bath fly-half George Ford struggled from the tee, Myler kicked six penalties and added a conversion for a 20-point haul.
Anthony Watson’s breakaway score in the first half had Bath in front but slowly but surely Saints ground their way back into the contest after the interval as Myler punished any infringement.
And in the final stages they finally crossed the whitewash as well as Phil Dowson piled over at the back of a driving maul.
There was still time for another score for Saints as, after a Myler interception, Burrell appeared to have been held up over the line before a combination of Ben Foden and George North forced the ball to ground to seal victory.
The win ends Saints’ run of four successive final defeats and maintains their chances of a European and domestic double with the Aviva Premiership final still to come next weekend.
For Bath the wait for a first trophy since the 2008 Amlin success goes on but there was little sign of the kicking problems to come for Ford when, as early as the second minute, the fly-half drilled a penalty from the halfway line with consummate ease.
But Jim Mallinder’s side, with only four changes from the side that beat Leicester Tigers in such thrilling fashion last week, soon began to assert themselves and with Bath forced into fielding the inexperienced Tom Dunn in their front-row they were under the pump straight away at scrum time.
British & Irish Lion Alex Corbisiero, making his first Saints start since his return from knee injury, got the nudge on and when the penalty was won Myler made no mistake to level things up at 3-3.
Bath full-back Nick Abendanon, in his last game for the club before he departs for Clermont, was showing adventure when he could get his hands on the ball.
And there was some force to go with their flair, Bath’s driving maul has been a real threat all season and they came agonisingly close to a try after 12 minutes but Saints held them up short.
With the referee playing advantage however Ford went back for the kick which he duly slotted to put them back in front at 6-3.
Ford’s right shoulder might require surgery but his right foot was in fine working order at the outset – both from kicking tee and hand – as he kept Saints pinned back in their own territory.
But despite dominating the first quarter it was Saints who came within a whisker of the game’s opening try, Abendanon foolishly trying to offload under serious pressure by his own try line. The loose pass was intercepted by Lee Dickson but with the try line begging he was tackled just short.
That set up a succession of scrums on the Bath try line and eventually they won the simplest of penalties that Myler kicked to level things up again.
Bath’s defensive intensity and speed at the breakdown was a consistent menace in the first half for Saints and it even created the first try of the match.
Jonathan Joseph’s crunching hit on Ken Pisi behind the gainline freed the ball up at the breakdown and Watson was the quickest to react, the winger scooping up the loose ball and bursting clear from halfway to touch down under the posts, Ford converting for a 13-6 lead.
The diminutive Ford, who will miss England’s summer tour to New Zealand to have shoulder surgery, was being kept out of the firing line by Bath in their defensive set-up but their intensity remained unbowed in the first-half, consistently catching Saints attackers way behind the gainline as the normally unstoppable North consistently found himself isolated.
Ford could have capped a near perfect first-half with a penalty on the stroke of the interval but he pulled it left and it remained 13-6 at the break to the Blue, Black and White.
Saints’ chance of a fightback took a huge dent at the start of the second half when Corbisiero was sent to the sin bin for a late off-the-ball tackle.
But all of a sudden Ford’s place kicking deserted him, the fly-half missing two eminently kickable penalties at the start of the second half either side of Myler slotting a simple effort of his own.
So despite their dominance Bath were only four points to the good at 13-9 as the game approached the hour mark. And when Myler slotted his fourth penalty from near halfway the comeback was well and truly on, Bath only leading by a point at 13-12.
Panic appeared to be setting in for Bath and Saints, with Corbisiero back from his ten minutes in the bin, sensed their opportunity.
Ford was caught in possession after a fine box kick from replacement Kahn Fotuali’i and his careless offload forced an infringement from Abendanon in front of his own posts.
Myler was never going to pass up that opportunity and all of a sudden Saints were in front for the first time in the match at 15-13.
The game was fast becoming a nightmare for Ford and Abendanon, a miscommunication between the two meaning the fly-half spilled a regulation high ball to invite yet more Saints pressure.
From that scrum Saints won yet another penalty and the metronomic Myler continued his flawless display with a sixth penalty of the evening.
Bath needed a response and Ford showed great character to put his previous misses behind him and slot a tough kick in the 65th minute after the superb Francois Louw had won yet another penalty at the breakdown.
Ford’s kick meant that Saints were 18-16 ahead with less than a quarter of an hour to play but the leaders took the odd decision of kicking to the corner when an in-form Myler would surely have slotted the kick for a five-point lead.
The decision so nearly paid off as they created the overlap down the short side but with the try line at his mercy Alex Waller spilled the ball forwards when it looked easier to score.
The pressure from Saints was incessant however and Waller’s mistake did not prove too costly with the referee playing advantage anyway.
From the next lineout Anthony Perenise was sent to the bin for Bath and finally the pressure told as the driving maul burst through and replacement Dowson emerged at the bottom of a pile of bodies with the ball for the all-important try.
Myler’s conversion made it 25-16 and moments later Saints were home and dry, the fly-half breaking clear after an interception before finding Pisi who in turn fed Burrell.
And while the England centre looked like he had been held up over the line, Foden and North forced the ball to ground and crowned a famous victory for Saints.
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