Northampton Saints 3 Bath 18: Tom Vickers' review and player ratings

2020: The year when most of us felt like we had lost some of the freedom we formerly enjoyed.

By Tom Vickers
Thursday, 27th August 2020, 2:51 pm
Updated Thursday, 27th August 2020, 2:54 pm
Taqele Naiyaravoro tried to carry Saints forward
Taqele Naiyaravoro tried to carry Saints forward

And for Saints, it has definitely been no different.

While they ran riot against teams during the early part of the season, they have been all tied up at Franklin's Gardens during this calendar year.

Everywhere they turn, there is a new restriction.

Francois van Wyk

From London Irish, to Bristol, to Saracens, to Wasps, to Bath on Wednesday night - teams have found a way to limit what Saints are allowed to do.

And how they have been made to pay.

Almost every error they have made in their own half has cost Chris Boyd's team.

That was amplified against Bath.

Courtney Lawes

Ahsee Tuala dropped a box kick unopposed and then Sam Matavesi presented the ball to Ruaridh McConnochie, who picked up and gleefully raced in to seal the win.

It meant Bath, who spent what seemed like less than a minute in total in Saints' red zone, scored twice.

And they almost added a third score with the final play of the game.

It was absolutely agonising.

Saints squad members made plenty of noise for their team

But sadly, it was nothing new.

This year, the old adage of forwards win games, backs decide by how much has been altered by Saints.

Now it is defence wins games, Saints' errors decide by how much.

Opposition teams have mounted smash and grab raids at the Gardens on a regular basis.

Against Irish, Saints, who had Api Ratuniyarawa sent off, failed to clear their lines, having a Henry Taylor box-kick charged down to allow Dave Porecki to pounce for a last-gasp try.

Against Bristol, Saints were 14-0 up after 50 minutes but fell apart after Rory Hutchinson was sin-binned, shipping two quick tries between the 60th and 63rd minute.

Against Saracens, Saints led 15-8 at half-time only for sin-binnings for Lewis Bean and Taqele Naiyaravoro to cost them dear, with Ben Earl presented with an intercept try.

Against Wasps, Saints played against 14 men for 20 minutes of the match but conceded four tries even though the opposition barely spent any time in the home side's 22.

The Bath defeat poured on the pain, making it Saints' worst run at the Gardens for 16 years.

They have lost all five home league matches in 2020 - and next up it's runaway leaders Exeter Chiefs. Gulp.

It really is a torrid tale and one that just keeps repeating itself like a bad film put on loop.

Saints have been in these games almost all the way.

They are dominating possession in many of them but when they are met by resistance they are struggling to come up with a Plan B.

If they can't get the attacking game they were previously able to pride themselves on going, they need to be able to count on their forwards to earn them ugly wins.

But teams like Wasps and Bath have produced packs who have been able to destroy them and the breakdown and in the set piece, allowing them to relieve the pressure and instead pile it on Saints.

And when the pressure has come, Saints have cracked at the Gardens this year.

Even though they were just five points down after Bath scored their first try, the black, green and gold were trying to force things that just weren't on.

They lacked patience and then made another error - Matavesi's pass didn't find its intended target - that compounded it all.

Much was made of Bath's bench, and yes, they did add some vital experience late on.

But it wasn't as though their replacements turned the tide and made them dominant.

It was just that Saints continued to lack the composure and class that had put them in such a strong Premiership position earlier this season.

Fans are understandably frustrated and concerned. Who wouldn't be after five successive home defeats? No matter how they came.

But it also has to be remembered that this is the team that won so impressively at Lyon back in January to book a Champions Cup quarter-final place.

It is also a team that has produced some of the finest rugby seen at the Gardens - prior to 2020, of course.

It is a team that has made a habit of earning East Midlands derby successes with ease.

Being negative, you could argue Leicester are not as strong these days, but winning those games so comfortably under Chris Boyd should not be understated.

This is the team - aside from star man Cobus Reinach - who were chasing a top-two finish earlier this season.

This is the team who have won three of their four away league matches in 2020.

And this is the team that for all their faults at home this year have still managed to enjoy the lion's share of possession against the majority of sides they have played.

That they have not converted their chances owes much to the pressure they have put on themselves.

They may have looked free from anxiety in the way they have tried to play since the restart, but their execution says otherwise.

And it is so often the case that when the halo slips a little, things can really start to slide.

Opposition teams coming to the Gardens have been buoyed by those who have gone before them.

Back at the end of November when Tigers were ripped to shreds, the Gardens was a ground that was feared once again.

But since London Irish won there in January, teams know what can be done in Northampton.

If they frustrate Saints for long enough and turn the screw in the set piece, errors will eventually come.

It has happened five times in succession now, and Exeter will be more confident than any other that they can add to the misery in Saints' next home outing.

But the black, green and gold have to try to keep their belief.

They have to have confidence in what they are trying to do, because that is when they are at their best.

At times against Bath, they completely went away from what they are good at, trying to go toe-to-toe with the opposition.

And when it became that kind of scrappy, forward-orientated battle, there was only going to be one winner.

Bath are masters of that game - they have to be with the surface they play their home matches on - and it is one that is well suited to the Premiership against a lot of sides.

Saints kicked away possession needlessly at times and they gave Bath easy reprieves at scrum time and in crucial lineouts.

It was all so tough to watch as just as the team looked like it was getting somewhere, the foundations under their feet moved.

It has been a theme, and one that simply has to change at home very soon.

If it doesn't, Saints have the kind of fixtures lying in wait that will really bring pain.

In a year that has produced few smiles, they need theirs back.

They just haven't looked like they are enjoying things as much in 2020 - as is the case for many people across the globe.

It is the biggest challenge the coaching staff have faced so far, but if they can somehow bring back the fun, they can bring back the winning feeling to Franklin's Gardens.

This squad is capable, it just needs to find a way to stop others enforcing such stringent restrictions.

How they rated...

AHSEE TUALA

Was the late hero against London Irish last weekend, but it was a different story here as his handling wasn't as assured and he dropped the box kick that led to Bath's first try... 4.5

TOMMY FREEMAN

The 19-year-old Senior Academy player came in at late notice and he didn't look out of place, going so close to a score before he was stopped at the last... 5.5

FRASER DINGWALL

Made one incredible hit on Josh Matavesi to stop the Bath 10 in his tracks, but that was as good as it got as the opposition started to impose themselves physically... 5.5

PIERS FRANCIS

Couldn't have too much of an influence on the game as Bath shut him down at source, stopping him from creating anything... 5

TAQELE NAIYARAVORO

Made one huge carry, flooring Bath forward Mike Williams in the process, and the big man always looked lively and hungry for work... 6

DAN BIGGAR

Hasn't been at his best since the restart and wasn't able to get a grip on this game with some of his kicking from hand giving Bath easy possession... 5

HENRY TAYLOR

Tried to get Saints moving quickly and at times he succeeded but could not find the gaps needed to have a real impact... 5.5

NICK AUTERAC

Made some thundering hits in the first half against his old side and it wasn't the worst debut for the prop... 5

JAMES FISH

Produced one lovely offload and looked useful with ball in hand but was part of a Saints set piece that didn't have things its own way... 5

OWEN FRANKS

Had a real challenge on his hands up against Beno Obano, who was named man of the match, and couldn't have an influence here... 4.5

DAVID RIBBANS

An unusually tough night for the lock, whose handling wasn't quite there and who found himself on the wrong side of the referee... 4.5

API RATUNIYARAWA

Tried to assert himself by using his power to disrupt Bath but dropped one pass at a key point in the first half and wasn't totally on song here... 5

COURTNEY LAWES

The lock was Saints' standout player as he put in a big shift, complete with turnovers and big carries that eventually counted for nothing as Saints couldn't get anything from the game... 7

JJ TONKS

Found himself in the sin bin during the first half for what the referee felt was a tip tackle and got turned over at a crucial time in front of the posts... 4.5

TEIMANA HARRISON

Kept battling for his team, as he always does, but it wasn't to be his night as Bath stopped him from having a real impact... 5.5

Replacements (who played more than 20 minutes)

FRANCOIS VAN WYK (for Auterac 53)

Not an easy cameo for the prop as Bath continued to put the squeeze on at the scrum, finding favour with the referee... 4.5

EHREN PAINTER (for Franks 53)

Saints were under pressure in the set piece when this talented young player came on and he couldn't help them turn the tide... 4.5

RORY HUTCHINSON (for Francis 55)

Tried to open his box of magic tricks to help Saints get through Bath, but it didn't work as passes went astray and the away side thrived... 4.5

SAM MATAVESI (for Tonks 59)

Saw his pass fall to McConnochie for a try that put the game to bed and it was a tough night overall... 4

TOM COLLINS (for Freeman 59)

Added a little life on the wing, trying to use his footwork to keep Bath on their toes, but they defended well against him... 5

CHRON STAR MAN - Zach Mercer (Bath)