Worcester may not be safe mathematically but Bristol’s number is up. The Warriors’ second-half rally against their Premiership bogey side took them 12 points clear of the bottom club who have three matches to play, including the leaders Wasps on Sunday and the champions Saracens in the penultimate round. Even a miracle would not be enough.
Worcester knew victory would turn their survival prospects from probable to almost certain, but they had beaten Bath only twice in 21 Premiership meetings and once in the previous 15. The Lions’ assistant coaches Rob Howley and Steve Borthwick were in the stand as they prepared for Wednesday’s squad announcement.
The Bath full-back Anthony Watson was among the players under scrutiny and he prevented the opening try of the game after 30 minutes when Francois Hougaard turned a poor lineout tap down on halfway into profit by exploring the blind-side and passing to Perry Humphreys, whose kick reached the Bath line under Watson’s guard.
It was a sunny, if blustery day, and the outcome had consequences for both sides, but for long periods there was little of substance. Bath, who lost ground to Leicester in what is a jog rather than a race for fourth place, attacked from deep and George Ford, another seeking the eye of Howley, performed some neat loops with his centres, but neither side was going anywhere, both losing possession too easily, until the visitors won a lineout just inside Worcester’s half one minute from the break.
The score was 3-3, Ford’s 25th-minute penalty awarded when Biyi Alo, a 21 stone prop who has yet to ally his bulk with technique in the scrum, failed to roll away after a tackle, equalised by Ryan Mills 10 minutes later when Tom Ellis, on an afternoon when smart thinking appeared to be stuck in the holiday traffic, charged into a ruck from the side in front of the referee, and the prospect of a try looked remote.
Then Bath won a lineout near halfway and moved the ball routinely to Jonathan Joseph in midfield. His long pass reached Matt Banahan on the left flank almost at the same time as the Worcester full-back Chris Pennell, who stumbled into the challenge on one of the most imposing wings in the Premiership and was picking himself up from the ground when Banahan completed the run-in from 35 metres for his fifth league try of the season.
Mills reduced Bath’s interval lead to four points with the last kick of the opening half, a penalty from just in front of his own 10m line that was powered by the wind they had largely blown. When Ford extended Bath’s lead with a 35m penalty after another scrum collapse, the fixture was on course for its usual outcome.
Worcester had struggled to create space despite indulging in loops, long passes and decoy runners. Bath retained their shape but when the Warriors targeted Ford from set pieces the match swivelled.
First, Ben Te’o ran at his England colleague from a lineout 45m out at enough speed that Francois Louw could not help out and created an overlap on the right for Ryan Adams. Mills, who had earlier scuffed a 40-metre penalty into the wind, missed the conversion but there was a clear momentum shift.
Te’o became a pivotal figure and Worcester used his threat from another lineout to take the lead for the first time.
The ball was not passed to him but his fellow centre Wynand Olivier, who had been on the field for only five minutes. The South African charged at Ford who had the impact of a road bump and the cover defence was given a lift over the line.
Ford’s third penalty put Bath within three points of winning but they had faded so badly that Worcester spent 10 minutes on the attack. They ran three kickable penalties and were eventually rewarded when Will Spencer, a former Bath player, forced his way over the line. Ford’s fourth penalty gave Bath a bonus point, scant consolation on a day that exposed them as far from champion.