Bringing You the Daily Dispatch

Alex Mitchell try earns Northampton title as 14-man Bath are denied
Rugby union Sport

Alex Mitchell try earns Northampton title as 14-man Bath are denied

Northampton have waited a long time for a momentous day like this. Their last Premiership title was secured in 2014 and they desperately wanted to send off their departing club legend Courtney Lawes in style. Mixed in with the post-match euphoria, though, was a sizeable dollop of relief that one of the all-time great Twickenham escape acts had narrowly failed to materialise.

The record books will show that a 73rd-minute try from their England scrum-half Alex Mitchell propelled Saints to the promised land but in many ways it was Bath’s performance that defined the final. Playing with 14 men for more than an hour they were still hammering away at Northampton’s defence in the closing moments and came close to nicking a truly remarkable result.

Northampton, who are also bidding farewell to the popular Lewis Ludlam and Alex Waller, finished top of the regular season table but on this particular afternoon they occasionally lacked composure and came close to throwing everything away. They made far too many handling errors, were put under pressure at the set pieces and struggled to make their numerical advantage pay until the lively replacement George Hendy surged clear to send the supporting Mitchell over.

It all made for an emotional rollercoaster of a contest, even before the 22nd-minute red card shown to Bath’s loosehead prop, Beno Obano, for a dangerous tackle. Against all the odds, Bath managed to claw their way back and took the lead with 13 minutes left through a Finn Russell penalty, the Scotland fly-half’s third of the contest. It was not quite enough but Bath could be proud of the defiance and spirit that kept them in the contest until the end.

Once again, though, there could be no avoiding the impact of a match-shaping red card. There have been plenty of worse hits this season than Obano’s heavy contact with a descending Juarno Augustus but none at a more delicate moment. As so often, while justifiable under the current framework, it was also not an entirely clear as day decision.

Obano’s right arm was trying to bind, his knees were bent for contact and there was at least one angle that seemed to suggest the primary contact might have been to Augustus’s shoulder. From his vantage point, though, the referee, Christophe Ridley, in his first Premiership final, could see only contact with the Saints No 8’s chin and felt red was the only appropriate card colour.

Alex Mitchell scores the winning try at Twickenham.View image in fullscreen

Given the decision, it was also reasonable to ask why Augustus was not removed for a head injury assessment if the blow was so clear and obvious. What was not in any doubt was the steepness of the mountain Bath were left to climb. As well as losing Obano they had to sacrifice their own barnstorming No 8 Alfie Barbeary in order to bring on a reserve prop and a previously tight game instantly took on a different complexion.

Initially, Saints were quick to take advantage. Lawes ploughed into contact in the middle of the field but not before he had sent George Furbank roaring through a gap from which the full-back put Tommy Freeman clear to score. Less than three minutes later Northampton had a second score on the board, Furbank again influential in the buildup before releasing Ollie Sleightholme on the left wing. The latter’s right-foot banana kick loomed as though it might roll too long but held up just long enough for the winger to get there and touch it down.

skip past newsletter promotion

Suddenly it was 15-3 with not even half an hour gone. To their credit, though, Bath kept coming and Thomas du Toit, their South African tighthead, maintained his reputation as a close-range try sniffer with another successful lunge. Russell slotted the conversion to reduce the half-time margin to five points.

When the fly-half added another three points shortly after the restart Bath were back within a couple of points and Northampton were duly relieved when Fin Smith responded with a penalty at the other end. The Saints do some things extremely well but a little attacking knock-on here and a scrum free-kick there were helping to keep their opponents in the game.

They also had Ben Spencer’s left boot, one of this season’s more valuable weapons. With advantage being played the scrum-half hoisted a high cross-field kick towards the left corner where a back-pedalling Hendy could not gather and allowed Will Muir to pounce hungrily on the loose ball. Russell pulled his conversion narrowly wide but it was now 18-18 and, in theory, anyone’s game.

Beno Obano walks off after being shown a red card at TwickenhamView image in fullscreen

Cue Russell. When Furbank, for once, could not quite hold on to the ball the turnover allowed the No 10 the opportunity to conjure a 50-22 and put Saints under more pressure. When Curtis Langdon subsequently dropped another ball in his own 22, it was obvious to all that Saints were getting twitchy. When they were again pinged on the floor in front of their own posts Russell put Bath ahead. When Mitchell plunged over it was not a moment too soon for the frayed nerves of Saints’ supporters.

It all made for a gripping end to another cracking occasion, with a delighted Lawes showing up to the post-match press conference shirtless and sporting a pair of ski goggles.

This was another of those days that underlined how marketable club rugby can be and the season as a whole has also been an encouraging one for those who believe there is an increasing amount of upwardly mobile homegrown talent in England. Some financial clouds remain but, on the field, this campaign has contained significantly more highs than lows.

Source: theguardian.com