Bath booked their place in the GUINNESS PREMIERSHIP title play-offs after a breathless display of running rugby left Saracens gasping.
And Bath’s first league crown since 1996 could be on the horizon, judging by this latest evidence of an all-singing, all-dancing game encouraged by head coach Steve Meehan.
Meehan has moulded Bath into an irresistible unit, and Saracens – despite fielding seven of the side on duty against their Heineken Cup semi-final conquerors Munster last weekend – were blown away.
The bonus-point victory Bath required to guarantee a play-off spot was never in doubt as they moved top of the Premiership above long-time leaders Gloucester.
They even played half the game with 14 men after South Africans Michael Claassens and Butch James were sin-binned, but it made no difference to the overall picture.
Saracens conceded six touchdowns and 45 points during the first half as James, Daniel Browne, Olly Barkley, Michael Lipman, Joe Maddock and Matt Banahan – the Premiership’s top try-scorer this season – ran riot.
England flanker Lipman collected his second try after the break, while Gloucester-bound Barkley finished with 31 points – a haul of two tries, nine conversions and a penalty – to give him the highest individual total by any player in a Premiership game this term.
Substitute Andrew Higgins added Bath’s final try, with Barkley able to reflect on a perfect 10-out-of-10 goalkicking masterclass.
The manner of Bath’s win will flash warning signals to title rivals such as Gloucester and Wasps, who meet at Adams Park tomorrow.
And victory for Bath over Kingsholm hosts Gloucester next Saturday should be enough to secure a home semi-final later this month.
Saracens carved out second-half consolation tries by centre Adam Powell, prop Kevin Yates and wing Kameli Ratuvou, yet they will be the first to admit their opponents were in a different class.
Sarries, whose hopes of Heineken Cup qualification next season were effectively over before they arrived in the west country, suffered a late injury blow.
Full-back Richard Haughton was injured during the warm-up, so Francisco Leonelli switched to number 15 and Dan Scarbrough started on the wing in a side that included former Bath prop Yates.
Bath made two changes following last weekend’s emphatic European Challenge Cup semi-final victory over Sale Sharks, with Browne and Maddock both handed starts.
And they blasted out of the blocks, scoring two converted tries during an opening quarter when Bath’s ball-handling and high-tempo game stretched Saracens in all areas.
Browne claimed the opener, rounding off a sweeping move started by Maddock’s angled run and taken on at speed by Lipman and full-back Nick Abendanon.
Barkley converted following an earlier penalty, and then he took centre stage himself by dancing through Saracens’ midfield defence for a touchdown that rewarded incessant pressure.
With Barkley adding the extras, Saracens found themselves 17-0 down after 18 minutes and already in grave danger of suffering a crushing defeat.
And matters deteriorated for the visitors just six minutes later as Bath carved out another opening when hooker Lee Mears and centre Alex Crockett linked brilliantly, allowing Lipman to gallop clear.
Another Barkley conversion took the rampant home side 24 points clear, and the bonus-point try almost followed from the restart, but Ratuvou pulled off a stunning tackle on James.
Even when Saracens secured possession they struggled to make headway in the face of a ferocious Bath defence, and the try spree continued with three more before the break.
All Saracens could do was stand and admire Bath’s imperious skill levels, with Maddock posting their fourth touchdown after 33 minutes and securing maximum points.
Maddock’s score owed everything to the creativity of flanker Jonny Faamatuainu, although the Samoan’s poor discipline also surfaced just before the break when he laid into Yates on the floor.Referee Rob Debney missed the incident as he was chasing Banahan on a 70-metre sprint to the line for try number six, while James’ kick and chase effort four minutes earlier also undid Saracens.
Claassens was yellow-carded during stoppage time for a technical infringement, but Bath trooped off 45 points clear after delivering an astounding all-action performance.
Saracens briefly stemmed the tide through tries by Powell and Yates, both converted by Glen Jackson, yet Lipman resumed normal service by powering over after 58 minutes to post the half-century.
An inevitable raft of substitutions came during the closing quarter before Barkley sprinted over for his second try and Higgins added Bath’s ninth touchdown after Ratuvou pounced.