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Claas act takes Bath top

The chill wind that swept across the Recreation Ground did little to cool the festive mood as Bath Rugby produced a gritty 25-14 victory over Northampton Saints to ensure that the West Country side ended 2008 exactly where they wanted to be - at the top of the Guinness Premiership table.

After a succession of heart-stopping wins, designed only for those with the strongest of dispositions, Bath Rugby were looking for a more focused performance that would not give another full house indigestion after the Christmas indulgence, but instead leave them in a state of satisfaction after a comfortable victory.

However, this clash against Northampton Saints was far from dull viewing and opened in spectacular fashion when the first try came in the opening minute from Jersey giant, Matt Banahan. Spectators barely had time to settle in their seats before the winger had crossed for five points and a Butch James conversion shot Bath into an instant 7-0 lead.

Spurred on by the vociferous faithful, Bath pressed to extend the advantage and launched a series of penetrating attacks inside the Northampton 22 as Cuthbert, in for the injured Abendanon, and Joe Maddock looked menacing. However, the try-hungry hosts were unable to convert pressure into points and it was the Saints who scored the next points through the boot of Stephen Myler.

Offenses in quick succession widened, reduced and widened the score divide as first Northampton, then Bath and then the visitors again were penalised, giving each team the chance to add to their penalty haul.

Excellent interplay between Myler and Jon Clarke took the Saints to within inches of scoring a much needed five points, but instead of opting for a scrum when awarded a penalty, they chose the kick and thus were forced to content themselves with a 13 - 6 scoreline after 24 minutes.

Four minutes before the half-time whistle, and with both sides having failed to make use of some good opportunities, Jonny Faamatuainu attempted to make a break in midfield before meeting resolute Northampton defence. A penalty opportunity ensued and Cuthbert took over the duties for the long-range effort. However, the ball fell short and the players headed for the changing rooms with Bath leading13 to 6.

Coming back from the break, Northampton were offered the chance to make up some points as an early Bath offence allowed Myler to slot his third successful penalty of the game after 43 minutes. Determined not to allow the visitors to gain further points on the board, Michael Claassens made a gritty charge which Maddock continued, dancing straight through the defence. Unfortunately, the added pressure on the Saints, although leading to another penalty kick opportunity for James, did not result in a further three points for Bath.

Ten minutes into the second half and Northampton were caught offside. The home side opted for the scrum and Claassens broke, offloaded to James, who in turn found Shontayne Hape, before the ball was returned to the scrum half to slip over the line for a well-constructed try. The five points extended Bath's lead to 18-9, with Claassens enjoying his third try of the season.

With 9 minutes left on the clock, Bath made some aggressive attempts to ramp up their lead and whilst Peter Short looked as though he was finishing the try that had been set up by replacement Daniel Browne, a penalty prevented the west country side from enjoying the points. However, just minutes later, after a gnarly battle inside Northampton's 22, Claassens managed to sprint clear of the swarming defence to ground the ball for his second try of the match. With James successfully converting, Bath were sitting pretty with 25 - 9 lead and mere minutes to go.

Northampton made a last ditch attempt to claw back a losing bonus point and Juandre Kruger crossed to give them hope. It was not enough though and as the light dimmed on a bitterly cold day, Bath celebrated their last match of 2008 with a 25-14 victory and a return to the top of the Guinness Premiership table.

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