Bath’s decision to move the match against the Premiership’s best supported team away from the Recreation Ground looked to be a commercial rather than a rugby success 12 minutes from time, with Leicester seeming in control of the battle for fourth place in front of more than 60,000 spectators. However, in a flash “The Clash” turned.
It has not been the most productive of seasons for Anthony Watson, more stop than start after injuries before the November international series and the Six Nations. Playing at full-back, he struggled to get into a game that really was a clash – of styles. Bath looked to keep the ball alive, running from anywhere and everywhere, while Leicester sought refuge in their set-piece staples, breaking out for the occasional burst of improvisation behind.
Leicester, who started the day in fourth place three points ahead of Bath and finished there on points difference, took the lead in the fifth minute and held on to it until Watson’s second try nine minutes from time, just after they had been reduced to 14 men when JP Pietersen was sent to the sin-bin for a deliberate knock-on. They were never comfortable against a team that could be careless and inspired in the same movement, but an eight-points lead looked enough of a cushion given Bath’s frailty this season when playing catch-up.
The home side were fickle in the opening period, turned over too easily, not least when Leicester scored their second try in the 12th minute after Jonathan Joseph embarked on a solo mission and was stripped of the ball by Brendon O’Connor, but more aware after the interval as their two experienced forward internationals, Taulupe Faletau and Francois Louw, combined in defence and attack to turn the game.
Faletau played a decisive part in Watson’s first try, running a line in support of Joseph and timing his pass to Watson on his right, while Louw won three turnovers in the final stages, the last after Bath had joined the Tigers on 14 men when the prop Beno Obano paid for the number of scrums his side had collapsed before his arrival on 66 minutes. Leicester had driven their way to 10 metres from the line when the South African, timing his challenge and staying on his feet, stole the ball.
Bath were by then defending a lead given to them by Watson whose second try quickly followed Pietersen’s yellow card. The warm conditions had started to sap the strength of the visitors who lost their captain, Tom Youngs, his successor Mathew Tait and the outside-half Freddie Burns to injury. They played with less authority and came to resemble Bath in the opening period, more individual than collective and prone to mistakes.
Despite their constant movement, Bath struggled to get Watson and Semesa Rokoduguni on the right wing into the game, but the full-back’s second try encapsulated the best of a team that went into the match on a run of three successive league defeats. They attacked space and when Matt Banahan, whose lack of pace for a wing had been exposed in the build-up for Leicester’s second try, stepped inside and passed outside to Watson, the defence was wrong-footed.
Bath’s first try after 20 minutes was as slick, highlighting a difference between the sides that ultimately proved decisive. Faletau was twice involved as the home side stormed the gainline and George Ford’s long pass sent Joseph into unguarded territory. Ford, like Burns, was playing against the club he will be joining in the summer, but he was intent on showing the Tigers what they would be gaining and ran the game in the final hour.
Bath used their big runners as first receivers when possession was slow, utilising Ford when they were on the front foot. It allowed them to attack space and the outside-half’s goal-kicking on a ground where he was jeered last May for missing a succession of attempts playing for England against Wales was accurate as he landed five out of six, with his one blemish a long-range penalty at the end of the first half that drifted wide.
The hosts, who had conceded 53 points at Saracens two weeks ago, struggled at the start when O’Connor scored a try for Leicester after five minutes following Burns’s long pass and then set up Telusa Veainu, getting away with a knock-on. Ford followed Joseph’s try with a penalty but Burns made it 15-10 to Leicester at the break with a 45-metre kick after Ellis Genge won another penalty at a scrum.
Ford kicked his second penalty in between two by Burns after the break as the quality deteriorated. Leicester, in Matt O’Connor’s first match in charge, looked to settle for what they had but they failed to restrain the speed and opportunism of Watson, whose quick thinking and feet salvaged the decision to send a home banker on the road.