CARDIFF, WALES – What began as an even contest ended as a rout. Northampton Saints were far too strong for Bath Rugby to handle over the course of eighty minutes, as the East Midlands outfit lifted the Amlin Cup with a comprehensive 30-16 victory. For the Saints, the win banished some demons ahead of Saturday’s Aviva Premiership Final against Saracens. Jim Mallinder’s team had lost four consecutive finals, but can now enter Twickenham with some confidence after a courageous display.
From the start of the match, it was clear both teams had come to play their best game. In the build up to the final, commentators suggested that Bath would be desperate to come away from a strong season with some silverware. Mike Ford’s team came flying out of the gate, winning rucks throughout the first half and causing chaos for the Northampton backline. George Ford looked to be putting on a masterclass in the first twenty minutes, kicking beautifully both from hand and from the tee. However, things all went wrong after the half for the young No. 10, as he missed three consecutive penalties and dampened Bath hopes of running away from the Saints. The longer Northampton were allowed to hang around in the match, the more they began to assert control.
The match was a cagey defensive affair for the first twenty five mintues, before Anthony Watson opportunistically grabbed a ball that popped loose from a ruck thanks to Dave Attwood’s pressure at the ruck. Things began to look truly grim for the Saints three minutes before the break, when Alex Corbesiero was sent to the sin bin. However, Ford missed the first of his fateful three kicks, and the Saints worked their way back into the match. Stephen Myler, a deserved Man of the Match, nervelessly slotted four consecutive penalties to put the Saints ahead 15-13 at the hour mark. Bath were visibly tiring at this point, and substitute Anthony Perenise’s yellow card spelled doom. Phil Dowson immediately crashed over for a try from the ensuing lineout, while Ben Foden wrapped up the match with a try that owed its origins to a Myler intercept. Five minutes later, Northampton had some silverware for the first time since their LV= Cup triumph in 2010.
In each of the past three season, the Challenge Cup was won by teams who had parachuted down from the Heineken Cup. This is one element of the late tournament that will not be lamented. Harlequins‘ triumph in 2011 was the last time a team that began the season in the tournament reigned as champions. However, the effort put forth by both Bath and Northampton suggests that the secondary competition is still seen as a prize well worth winning.
For Northampton, their victory guarantees that they can look back on the 2013-14 campaign with some fondness. Though this was supposed to be something of a transitional year, with a number of new players entering the side, the Saints have rebounded well from a late-season swoon. After Saracens’ loss in the Heineken Cup final, some will see Saints as the team with momentum. The result was somewhat harsh on Bath, who occupied the playoff positions in the Premiership for twenty weeks out of twenty-two. They have a solid, youthful core and will likely add to the trophy cabinet in the immediate future. That does little to ease the pain of a stinging loss in the moment. Nick Abenedon heads to the greener (monetarily) pastures of Clermont next season, while Sam Burgess will bolster the pack. George Ford will only improve with age. Bath’s run in the tournament has unquestionably laid the foundation for a successful side, while providing supporters with entertainment in the present. The tournament ended with a symbolic match: imperfect, but strangely compelling.
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