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Owen Farrell’s late penalty gives Saracens hard-fought win at Bath
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Owen Farrell’s late penalty gives Saracens hard-fought win at Bath

There are plenty of would-be contenders to win this year’s Premiership but they still have to prise Saracens’ stubborn fingers off the trophy. When push comes to shove the defending champions tend to raise their game and a resolute defensive display was rewarded when Owen Farrell kicked the winning penalty goal three minutes from time to edge a heavy-duty contest.

So much for the increasing trend towards wide open, free-flowing Premiership try-fests. This was a frequently rugged, old school game, ultimately shaped by defensive commitment, and when the dust finally settled it was Sarries who emerged best placed to secure a potential home semi-final when the playoffs commence next month.

They had to work mighty hard for it, keeping Bath scoreless in the opening 40 minutes and building victory on the foundations of first-half tries from Tom Parton and Rotimi Segun. Just when it seemed as though close-quarters tries from Thomas du Toit and Cameron Redpath might have revitalised Bath, however, Farrell’s decisive penalty from bang in front of the posts ultimately silenced the home crowd.

It was not always pretty, with Saracens repeatedly opting to kick the ball high to deny their hosts the oxygen of easy attacking ball, but the ends fully justified the means. While there are certain to be plenty more twists and turns between now and the end of the regular season, this outcome may well have a major impact on the final top four shakedown.

“It feels big,” admitted Mark McCall, Saracens’ director of rugby. “We needed to rediscover some of the team energy and spirit that has been a bit lacking in the last couple of weeks. We needed to have each other’s backs and fight for each other throughout the game and I’m really proud that we did that. That can be a springboard for us.”

Whether a fit Finn Russell would have altered the equation no one will never know but Bath certainly missed their creative kingpin. They will also wonder what might have happened had Maro Itoje seen red instead of yellow for an upright high tackle on Alfie Barbeary, prompting howls of protest from the home faithful.

Bath’s rolling maul creates a try for Cameron Redpath.View image in fullscreen

Some of the replays did not look great but the referee, Luke Pearce, eventually decided the first contact had been slightly lower and was only worthy a yellow card, a decision which puzzled Bath’s director of rugby, Johann van Graan. “What I saw was a head-on-head collision,” he said, otherwise keen to salute Saracens’ grit and determination. “That was as close to a Test match in the Premiership as you can get. That’s why they are the champions. It was a titanic battle.”

The watching England head coach, Steve Borthwick, had no shortage of international squad members to monitor on a cool, still evening, with Barbeary and Charlie Ewels both excellent for Bath and Theo Dan making another eye-catching contribution off the bench for Sarries. Farrell was also a pivotal figure, sparking a wonderful late 80-metre break-out which forced the position from which Bath eventually conceded a ruck penalty and allowed him to slot the winning points.

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It was a whole lot tighter than had seemed likely just prior to half-time when, in Itoje’s temporary absence, the 14-man Saracens came up with arguably the game’s crucial moment. The ball bounced loose in their half and Segun burst on to it, leaving a clutch of Bath defenders trailing in his wake. Farrell’s subsequent deft kick-pass then found Segun again and the wing ensured his side went in 12-0 ahead at the interval.

It was a far cry from the last time Saracens played beside the River Avon at the end of last season when they conceded 61 points, albeit with a weakened matchday squad. They are a less consistent side than they were in their trophy-laden heyday but a touch of their old familiar cussedness was increasingly evident.

Bath knew they had to respond and duly did so when their replacement front-row drove Saracens up and backwards at a keynote scrum. Now it was the visitors who were under siege and close-range maul tries inside eight minutes from Du Toit and Redpath seemed to have stolen the initiative. They reckoned without Sarries standing firm when it mattered most and giving Farrell one last chance to propel his side up to second place in the table.

Source: theguardian.com