GUINNESS PREMIERSHIP leaders Bath were fortunate to escape with a share of the honours as battling Northampton overcame a 21-10 first-half deficit to preserve their 18-month unbeaten home record in a thriller at Franklins Gardens.
Butch James, South Africa’s World Cup-winning fly-half who was overlooked for the Springboks’ clash with England at Twickenham, kicked three penalties and two conversions for Bath, who had won all their previous away matches this season.
Full-back Jack Cuthbert, number eight Daniel Browne and flanker Jonny Faamatuainu scored tries for the visitors, with Northampton replying through left-wing Paul Diggin, flanker Mark Easter and replacement forward Soane Tonga’uiha and 13 points from the boot of full-back Stephen Myler.
James, left out by South Africa as coach Peter de Villiers adopted a policy of selecting only home-based players for the autumn internationals, kicked Bath into an early 6-0 lead.
Northampton were penalised three times for offences at the ruck in the opening 11 minutes and James punished them twice.
The hosts hit back when Diggin, called up this morning after centre Chris Mayor failed a fitness test, scored their opening try in the 14th minute.
Number eight Roger Wilson made the break to split the Bath defence and visiting full-back Cuthbert committed himself as Northampton locks Juandre Kruger and Ignacio Fernandez Lobbe combined to send Diggin racing over in the corner, with Myler adding the touchline conversion.
Bath won possession from the restart and Cuthbert made almost instant amends, bouncing off four would-be tacklers on his charge to the line for his side’s first try, converted by James who extended their lead to 16-7 with his third penalty in the 28th minute.
Myler reduced the deficit to six points with a 32nd-minute penalty but Bath looked dangerous every time they ran at the Saints defence.
A fast-handling move involving Cuthbert, Andrew Higgins and Peter Short should have produced a try when James threw out a long pass to substitute Shaun Berne but, with giant winger Matt Banahan outside him, Berne was tackled just short of the line.
Bath’s second try came in the 27th minute when they controlled a close-range scrum superbly before Browne powered in.
Myler’s second penalty enabled Northampton to stay in touch at 21-13 at half-time and they reduced the arrears to one seven minutes into the second half.
With referee David Rose playing advantage after a high challenge by Berne on Diggin, Bruce Reihana’s kick bounced favourably for flanker Mark Easter who dived over and Myler landed the difficult conversion.
Northampton, in full flow, had the 13,473 sell-out crowd on their feet as they threw everything at the leaders.
Reihana almost crashed through and his centre partner James Downey twice went close, being hauled down just short of the line before crossing only to be held up by the combined effort of James and flanker Jonny Faamatuainu.
Saints’ former All Blacks fly-half Carlos Spencer missed a drop-goal attempt, speedy winger Chris Ashton was just beaten to the ball by Banahan over the try-line as he chased his own kick and only some desperate last-ditch tackling by the visitors held Northampton at bay.
But Saints were not to be denied and they grabbed the lead for the first time in the 61st minute when Myler landed a stunning drop-goal from three metres inside his own half.
They stretched the lead to seven points five minutes later when Reihana, taking the ball from the base of a ruck, found forward replacement Soane Tonga’uiha, who made the most of his first touch of the ball by charging in for Northampton’s third try.
Bath hit back to level the scores when Faamatuainu burst through for their third try, converted by James, to set the scene for a tension-packed finale in the last eight minutes.
Spencer narrowly missed with a 77th-minute drop-kick from the halfway line and Northampton continued to hammer away but the visitors held out.