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RUGBY: Northampton 43 Bath 25
8:27pm Saturday 28th December 2013 in Sport
SIX-TRY Northampton reasserted their Aviva Premiership title credentials by fending off Bath 43-25 to maintain second spot with their sixth straight league victory.
George Pisi, Jamie Elliott, Samu Manoa and George North backed up a try brace for lock Christian Day as Saints denied Bath their 12th consecutive win in all competitions.
The league's most accurate goalkicker Stephen Myler added 13 points to ensure Bath left Franklin's Gardens without even a losing bonus point.
Bath raced into a 13-0 lead thanks to Kyle Eastmond's try and two penalties and a conversion for George Ford.
But the Blue, Black and Whites' best record in a decade came crashing down as Northampton scored twice to turn the game when Bath prop Paul James was in the sin-bin.
Day's second score opened the second half in style for Saints before Bath rallied with a try for Rob Webber.
Manoa and Leroy Houston traded tries as Bath battled for a final-quarter turnaround, before North added the killer blow on the stroke of full-time.
Bath's defeat ensured a rude awakening for their title ambitions, and Saints were able to wind down the clock at the end to coast to their win.
Last year's beaten Premiership finalists Saints have made no secret of their desire to go one better this time around. Entering 2014 with second spot locked down offers an ominous statement to their rivals.
Bath's tactic of heading back into the changing rooms at an early injury-enforced referee switch proved the more effective.
Anthony Perenise crashed into Luke Pearce, and the official received a split eyebrow for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Replacement referee Martin Fox arrived after a five-minute hiatus, and Bath clearly treated the resumption as a complete restart.
It paid immediate dividend.
Bath's pack powered Northampton off the ball at the scrum, and Ford slotted the penalty to end a run of five-straight missed shots at goal in the league.
Ken Pisi's weak clearance then gifted Bath both territory and a broken field.
Prop James drove into contact, Jonathan Joseph moved the ball wide to Anthony Watson and the full-back sent Eastmond home for the game's first try.
Two phases and Bath were home and hosed, with Ford adding the conversion.
England will look at fast-improving former London Irish man Watson on the wing, and his lack of experience at 15 nearly exposed the visitors.
Watson was nowhere to be seen for a Saints high ball, forcing Ford into a clear mismatch against the giant Welshman North.
North's commanding claim galvanised the hosts to find a foothold.
Two 22 penalties and as many mauls from Saints later, Bath prop James was sent to the sin-bin for collapsing one of those drives.
A man light Bath had no chance of defending another five-metre maul, so it was an easy trot home for Saints lock Day.
Myler added the conversion to cut Bath's lead to 13-7 at the close of the first quarter.
North exposed Bath's high-ball fragility once again, with Horacio Agulla penalised for taking out the airborne Wales wing.
Another penalty, another maul, and Saints were sniffing try blood once more.
Manoa fed North on the charge into the 22, Kahn Fotuali'i found Elliott with a pinpoint cross-field chip, and George Pisi finished in the right corner.
Myler's conversion wrestled Northampton's first lead in the contest, 14-13 just past the half-hour.
Northampton's 14-point turnaround with Bath down to 14 men only served to underline the ripple effect of a yellow card.
A penalty for obstruction allowed Saints more line-out field position.
Jim Mallinder's men launched another high-octane attack, and even Bath's full complement could not hold out.
Ken Pisi was unable to sneak into the left corner, but Saints stayed patient, recycled well and robbed Bath of cover on the right.
Myler's looping miss-pass capitalised on the overlap, Burrell fed George Pisi and he in turn sent Elliott into the corner unopposed.
Bath rallied with Ford fluffing a speculative drop-goal attempt as the game petered out to the interval.
There was to be no slow start for Saints after the break.
Lock Day claimed his second score as Northampton found immediate fluency, to secure the try bonus point.
Myler potted the conversion with ease to extend Saints' lead to 28-13.
Eastmond's wayward chip wasted a gilt-edged chance with Watson unable to reach the loose ball in the Saints in-goal area.
Hooker Webber capped a determined drive with a try for Bath just before the hour to enliven the contest once more.
But just four minutes later Saints' United States number eight Manoa powered over, cutting a smart inside line off Elliott on the short side.
That ought to have ended the argument, but still Bath gritted their teeth, and exploited their scrum dominance.
Bath's pack drove Saints off the ball from a five-metre set-piece, and replacement number eight Houston did the honours for the visitors' third score.
Northampton rallied once again though, just as they had every time Bath exerted pressure, and Myler slotted his first penalty of the day.
With Bath trying to force one last attack, Saints snaffled possession and North raced in to close a fine day for the home side.
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