Bath’s march up the Guinness Premiership continued as Saracens crashed to their fourth league defeat in five outings.
Referee David Rose littered the game with penalties, mostly against the hosts, and turned the game when he gave Bath a penalty try.
After a night of torrential rain in Hertfordshire, Rose was at Vicarage Road four hours before kick-off to satisfy himself the pitch was playable. And, while it was very heavy – particularly as Watford played a Championship game against Newcastle on it 24 hours earlier – Rose and the hosts agreed the game could go ahead.
Bath arrived without their injured South African fly-half Butch James – his place taken by Ryan Davis – but inspired by a recent run of good form that has seen them moving up from the bottom half of the table to potential Heineken Cup qualifiers. Saracens, beaten in three of their last four Guinness Premiership outings, knew victory would take them up to joint second with Northampton.
Saracens had Bath pinned down in front of their posts in the opening minute but, from the scrum, Derick Hougaard was hauled down by two defenders before he could ignite the backs. Then Bath broke out from deep, Matt Banahan hacked on and got over the line only for Brad Barritt to touch down first.
But, from the resultant scrum, Saracens were wheeled and forced to concede a penalty under pressure. Davis fired Bath into a fifth-minute lead from in front of the posts. He had a chance to double that scoreline in the 12th minute when Rose penalised Saracens at the breakdown. But the penalty faded and dipped underneath the crossbar.
Saracens finally escaped their half following a big back-row hit on Banahan that forced a turnover and, from the counter-attack, Bath were caught not releasing and Hougaard equalised with a 17th-minute penalty from 30 yards. And Saracens took the lead in the 23rd minute when Wikus van Heerden snaffled up a lineout that Mouritz Botha knocked back but failed to secure.
Flanker van Heerden reacted fastest and smashed through the cover to make it 8-3. Hougaard’s conversion attempt rebounded off a post. Rose lectured captain van Heerden after another Saracens offence at the breakdown and Davis duly fired over the penalty on the half-hour mark.
Bath then conceded immediately from the restart when they were penalised for not releasing. Hougaard’s 33rd-minute penalty was from wide out on the right but sailed between the posts to make it 11-6. Yet Saracens seemed incapable of building a score, conceding yet another penalty when Bath got within firing range. This time their scrum went down under pressure and Davis nailed his third kick out of three to make the half-time score 11-9.
It was Bath who took the initiative at the start of the second half. Yet another penalty was awarded against the Saracens scrum but this time, from in front of the sticks, Davis somehow managed to fire wide, producing the biggest cheer so far.
Bath looked a much more composed and organised team compared with many of the performances during the first half of the season and the concern for the home support was the number of penalties Saracens were conceding. Another for a breakdown infringement gave Davis a second opportunity to fire the visitors ahead but his 40-yard kick was again off target.
Rose gave another two penalties to Bath for close-quarter infringements. They took a scrum on both occasions and, from the second, when Saracens were deemed to have killed the ball close to the touchline, Rose ran out of patience and awarded a penalty try, converted by Davis. But the crowd reacted with fury and made their feelings known towards the official.
Saracens hit back in the 57th minute when, to ironic cheers, they were awarded a penalty. Hougaard hammered it home to prevent Bath pulling clear. They could have regained the lead on the hour when Hougaard took aim with a drop-goal attempt in front of the posts but hooked it.
Rose seemed determined to anger the home support, awarding yet another penalty to Bath – then marching them 10 yards closer to the home goal when van Heerden questioned the decision. Unfortunately for Bath, Davis missed for the third time.
Hougaard was also unsuccessful with a penalty seven minutes from time, his angled kick from the right drifting wide of the far post. And Rose awarded Saracens a penalty seconds from time as Bath pulled down a driving maul but once again Hougaard’s kick failed.