Firstly, I should apologise for the tardiness of this write-up. One of the frustrating things about writing a blog part-time alongside a full-time job is that the full-time one sometimes inconsiderately eats into your free time, but seeing that I have to earn money for food, beer and electricity (in order to write the blog), the full-time one has to take preference. Perhaps I should reassess my priorities.
If I have any doubts about where my priorities lie, however, the same thing cannot be said for Northampton Saints and Bath. Judging by both their starts, they aren't just focusing on making the top four this year – they want the title. Of course, Saints are the reigning champions and – one surprising loss away against Wasps aside – they have looked pretty worthy of that title, with a pack as mean a bulldog with a hangover and a backline which oozes menace from every pore. Mallinder has put together a side that can attack from all angles.
And Mike Ford – with Bruce Craig's cheque book, of course – seems to be doing similar at Bath. At times last year, you perhaps suspected that they were the type of side with a pretty backline but a bit of a damp forward pack, not overly dissimilar to Gloucester. It's fair to say that that notion has been dispelled this year – just ask Leicester, the traditional grizzly bears of forward play, as they took a royal pasting at the Rec last week. It all pointed toward a brutal encounter at Franklins Gardens on Saturday – and it didn't disappoint.
The game though, was put into perspective for what it is – a game – in the moments before kick off, as the players and the sell-out crowd remembered Luis Ghaut, a mascot of the side in last season's final, who had passed away following a battle with bone cancer at the age of 13. He would have loved the opening that his beloved Saints made.
The hosts, from the outset, dominated the territory and soon made it count in the ruthless manner which has become their trademark this season. Ben Foden, slowly building up to the form which made him the best fullback in England 4 years ago, fielded a panicked clearance kick, skipped past the chasing Jonathan Joseph and scythed straight through the Bath defence before the move broke down just 7 metres from the visitors' line. There was a certain try out to the right but, as Kahn Fotuali'I tried to find his runners, a retreating Luke Arscott stuck out his hand to concede one of the more obvious deliberate knock-ons you'll see – and referee Tim Wigglesworth, after consulting the TMO, decided that a try would have been scored and so correctly awarded the penalty try, showing Arscott a yellow card for his troubles. Myler's conversion made the score 7 – 0 after 8 minutes.
Bath were down to 14 men and sought to slow the game down until they could get back to a full complement – and they almost did so, with the physicality of Dave Attwood ensuring that the Saints pack didn't have it all their own way. But, on the 15 minute mark, the resistance broke. The men in blue were sent backpeddling as George Pisi wriggled his way past Joseph and Stuart Hooper to get within a metre of the whitewash, before the ball was flung right to flanker Calum Clark, who coasted over in acres of space, with Myler adding a tricky conversion.
Bath needed to get into the game or potentially succumb to the kind of treatment they dished out on the Tigers last week. In credit to them, the visitors finally managed to grab some territory and made it count almost immediately, with Dave Wilson taking a short ball off George Ford to wriggle his way over the line. There were questions on whether or not the pass was forward, but there was nothing clear and obvious, leaving the score at 14 – 7 after just 20 minutes.
The rest of the opening period turned into something of an arm-wrestle, with both packs hammering each other at the breakdown, but it was here that I felt that Bath were missing the brutal physicality of Carl Fearns – Saints seemed to just have the marginal upper hand in all the tight exchanges, and seemed in good shape in the scrum too. Myler and Ford exchanged penalties to leave the half time score at 17 – 10.
Saints though, were in no mood to let their visitors back into proceedings just yet, and started the second half in the same manner in which they started the first, the Northampton pack rumbling irresistibly forward to within metres of the line before Foden fed Christian Day to plough over Guy Mercer to score the corner. Another superb Myler conversion re-opened the 14 point lead, and barely 4 minutes later the hosts had their fourth try – and the bonus point. Again, Foden was involved, this time floating a gorgeous pass to put Luther Burrell into space, who in turn fed Pisi on the left hand side. The powerful Samoan barged past Ford – who had missed touch with a clearance moments earlier – to crash over for try number 4, with Myler once again proving imperious with the boot to add another 2 points.
Bath have proved that they're made from stronger stuff than in previous years, though, and where they may previously have rolled over, they doubled their efforts in searching for a way back into the game. A glimmer of hope appeared when substitute Gavin Henson (remember him?) ghosted through a gap to put Olly Woodburn in for a try, converted by Ford, on the 60 minute mark. That glimmer became a fully-fledged spark when they pulled the score back to within 7 with 10 minutes to go, when the West Country pack finally found some traction against their counterparts, rolling their opponents over the line with a well-structured maul. Nick Auterac was the man to emerge from the pile, whilst Ford's conversion ensured a nervy few minutes at Franklins Gardens.
The visitors tried the same trick again on the 77 minute mark – and almost succeeded in snatching an unlikely draw, with the pack once again smashing their way over the line but, this time, they somehow failed to ground the ball over the line, with Dylan Hartley instrumental with his efforts to prevent the try. It would prove to be Bath's last hurrah in this game. The full time whistle went and Franklins Gardens cheered with relief, but Saints were good value for their win.
That said, you emerged from watching this game with a strong sense that you'd just witnessed two of the division's heavyweights lugging the living daylights of each other. Northampton may have won this round, but I wouldn't like to call the return leg – both sides have made it clear that they have the priorities of champions this season.
London Welsh 10 – 46 Gloucester: A late surge from the Cherry and Whites – 31 points in the last 15 minutes – ensured that Welsh ended up on the wrong end of yet another hiding. There was nowhere to hide as Henry Purdy, Charlie Sharples, Mark Atkinson (2), Johnny May and a penalty try racked up the points for the visitors, with the Exiles' only score coming through flanker Ben Pienaar.
Saracens 40 – 19 Sale Sharks: Sarries ensured that they remain the only unbeaten side in this year's competition with a bonus point win over the Sharks. A superb solo try by Alex Goode set them on their way, with tries from Ernst Joubert and Richard Barrington sandwiching a penalty try to ensure the 5 point haul. Sale, to their credit, did manage 3 tries though, through Dave Seymour, Tom Brady and a penalty try of their own.
Leicester Tigers 19 – 22 London Irish: Injury ravaged Leicester looked shot of confidence as they succumbed to Irish at home for the first time in 12 years. In a tight game lacking any fluency, Halani Aulika's try had given the Exiles a half time lead which was cancelled out by Niki Goneva's try. The boot of Shane Geraghty though, proved the difference, as he sealed the win with a late penalty.
Exeter Chiefs 35 – 13 Harlequins: The Chiefs continued their impressive start to the season and compounded Quins' misery with a convincing win at Sandy park. Three in-form players were on the mark for the hosts, with Tom Waldrom, Jack Yeandle and Henry Slade all crossing, with the visitors only managing a reply through Asaeli Tikoirotuma, his first for his new club.
Wasps 35 – 18 Newcastle Falcons: Wasps grabbed a bonus point win as they carried on their eye-catching start to the year, condemning the Falcons to their 20th consecutive defeat. Tom Varndell (2), James Gaskell and Rob Miller all touched down for the men in black, with the Falcons responding through an effort from scrum half Ruki Tipuna and a penalty try.