I’m going to throw my impartiality right out of the window – I’ve been dreading this write up. Let’s be honest, I’ve had to write up some real turds in the past (in terms of game-enjoyment, as opposed to the quality of my writing, but I suppose that’s subjective) such as Wales v England 2013, or the 45 – 0 Bath humping of the Tigers in September. All very difficult to keep your colours close to your chest, but it does make it easier when the opposition play with such quality that a small part of me (a part which I despite, admittedly) has to loudly applaud. I confidently predicted, before Leicester arrived at the Rec for the Premiership Semi-final on Saturday, that we wouldn’t be seeing another thrashing of the magnitude of earlier on in the season...and, technically, I was right. Barely.
Leicester certainly seemed like they might be a very different animal in the build up to this one. Having squeezed the life out of Bath in the Welford Road fixture earlier on in the year, there were signs against Wasps that the Tigers might be finding their bite again, at exactly the right time. They looked hungry as they emerged from the tunnel but the slow, purposeful walk of Stuart Hooper and his troops told another story – and, within 2 minutes, there was a worrying sense of déjà vous for the Tigers players as Bath went over for the first score. Following a mistake by Jordan Crane, Jonathan Joseph made an electric outside break to put Matt Banahan into space, who charged over for a converted try and a dream start for the hosts.
The visitors did respond well and a Ben Youngs dart almost put Christian Loamanu over on the right, before Freddie Burns missed a penalty attempt – surprising given his form prior to the game. Leicester were making good ground, however, and were already showing dominance at the set-piece, where Dan Cole had Paul James in trouble, but Crane completed his nightmare opening to the game by conceding a penalty when the men in orange were getting close to the visitors’ line and then knocking on when the next opportunity arose. I will admit that, at this time, Mr Crane was not the most popular person in my living room.
Burns finally added a penalty, after a further miss and following a harsh no-arms penalty on James to get the visitors on the board and already better their last effort at the Rec, but Bath were in a ruthless mood. After Leicester cocked up the catch at the kick off, Bath ran through a couple of phases, with Sam Burgess making good yardage before Ford again swung the ball out to the left for Banahan to steam over for the try. Too easy, and a symptom of Leicester this season that they have been outflanked with ease far too often – and it happened again moments later on the other side, as Semesa Rokoduguni skinned Niki Goneva with an electric turn of speed and chipped ahead for Kyle Eastmond to gather and dot down. 30 minutes gone and, thanks to Ford’s flawless kicking, it was 21 – 3 to Bath. Bath had visited Leicester’s 22 three times, and come away with three tries.
Leicester were stunned and knew they had to strike back, and to their credit they dominated the rest of the half. Powerful carries from the likes of Tom Youngs and Ed Slater were constant sources of yardage, and Matt Tait was demonstrating superb footwork to match Joseph in the midfield, but – yet again – there was no system, no deception in place. It was simply a case of pass it to a bloke and see what they can do. The pressure that Leicester built though required some superb defence from Bath, and Francois Louw was at the heart of it, but eventually the penalties started to come, with Anthony Watson seeing yellow for going offside and he was swiftly followed by Leroy Houston, who was sent to the naughty-boy bin for dragging down a maul. Leicester nearly took advantage through Niall Morris in the corner, but the ball was dislodged as he dived over – however, on the cusp of half time, they finally worked their way over the line as Tom Youngs burrowed over from 5 metres for a well-deserved try, leaving the score at 21 – 10.
It had been an odd first half as Leicester had dominated possession and territory, but were well behind on the scoreboard – a testament to the precision and invention of the Bath attack, more than anything – and it was more of the same after the break. A couple of scrum penalties went unconverted, firstly by Burns and then by Tommy Bell, who replaced Morris after the Irishman had suffered a nasty-looking ankle injury.
I could go into great detail about the next 15 minutes, but in truth it all followed a uniform pattern. Usually a smart bit of work by a Leicester player such as Goneva, one of the Youngs brothers, Loamanu or Tait would get the visitors surging forward but, as soon they reached the Bath 22, someone would think “Oh sh*t, we’re getting a bit close here", and concede a knock on or a penalty. That is, of course, to do a huge disservice to the Bath defence, which was superb throughout – with the relatively small backline remaining disciplined and the aggressive backrow, now containing Carl Fearns, starting to dominate the collisions when it mattered most. Time after time the visitors were repelled, and you could see the energy fade from them; you could see the heads start to drop. And Bath then ripped them apart with the ruthlessness of the old Leicester teams.
Firstly, a superb break by Francois Louw in the midfield allowed the South African to offload to Dobby-the-house-elf-lookalike Peter Stringer to dive over for a game-sealing and well-received score, before Rokoduguni and Ford exchanged passes down the right hand touchline for the latter to dive over in the corner. It was what Ford deserved after a sensational performance which oozed class, composure and accuracy.
Leicester pressed for a consolation try but they were uninventive, slow, predictable – everything Bath were not, and they counter-attacked with stunning precision as Anthony Watson weaved his way upfield to create the space for Banahan to go over for his hat-trick. And there was still time for Watson to go through himself, carving through the Leicester line and riding a tap-tackle to score by the posts. Leicester were on the canvas. Bath, having rode out the storm, were simply unstoppable.
The final score was 47 – 10. Tigers had enjoyed 70% possession and territory, but Bath gave them a lesson in making it count. Simply put, it was the best attacking display I’ve seen this year from a young side packed with ambition and talent – and it looks as if they’ve got the experience to go all the way this year.