It was Bath Rugby's last chance to win away from home in the Guinness Premiership this season, and they took it, with a 20-12 win over Newcastle Falcons at Kingston Park, the result as much down to terrific defence as three tries from attacking play.
Bath had made a good start to the game. Steve Borthwick tapped down the kick-off and Bath strung together a good attack, during which they gained advantage for a swinging arm on Tom Cheeseman by John Rudd. Play continued but when it broke down, the referee took them back and awarded a penalty for the earlier offence. Olly Barkley kicked it to touch, the forwards surged to the line and Peter Short was driven over for a try. There was a strong wind, and Barkley's conversion attempt veered right of the posts.
A few minutes later, he had another shot at goal from forty metres out when Newcastle were penalised again, but once more the attempt was unsuccessful. Steve Meehan had spoken in the week of Newcastle's well-known prowess in the backs, and they now started to look dangerous, Toby Flood and Mathew Tait among those finding holes in the Bath defence that elicited cheers from the home supporters. Bath kept them at bay but eventually conceded a penalty at the breakdown but Flood could not put Newcastle on the board.
The young England fly-half had less trouble kicking from hand, for when awarded a penalty on halfway, he opted for touch, and found it to within inches of the tryline. As a result, Bath found themselves under pressure for a good fifteen minutes or more, and Newcastle should have scored, but with the line open to Geoff Parling, Andy Long's pass to the flanker went behind the man and dribbled into touch.
With errors and penalties, Bath remained pinned in their own 22, and yet the Falcons seemed unable to notch any points. The tension was only broken when Bath won a penalty which Shaun Berne kicked towards halfway. The forwards kept it tight from the lineout, and then Barkley hoisted a garryowen which was well claimed by Matthew Burke. The full-back brushed off Barkley's follow-up tackle, but offloaded not to a Falcon, but to David Bory, who did little more than jog to the line to score his second intercept try in as many weeks under the posts. This Barkley had no trouble in converting.
Having weathered the storm in the middle of the half, Bath finished strongly, but no further scores came before half-time. Newcastle came out firing after the break, and within two minutes had made up for the missed chances of the first half, when replacement Andy Buist rumbled over in a catch-and-drive move, the result of a penalty kicked to touch. With Flood adding the two points, the Falcons were right back in the game.
However, Bath remained intent on scoring themselves. When the ball found David Barnes on the left wing, it looked as if the Falcons defence would hustle him into touch. Somehow, though, the prop kept in play. A ruck formed, from which Berne picked up the ball and dotted it down.
With about fifteen minutes of the half gone, Flood, well in his own half, shimmied and opened up Bath's defence, offloading to Tait, who kept play going towards the Bath line. As Bath scrambled back, they were penalised for a deliberate knock-on, but again Newcastle missed the chance to score when Jamie Noon lost the ball forward in contact.
They got back within a score though, when Tait scythed through to score from thirty metres. Bory managed to keep him from running too near the posts but as for so long in the first half, the Falcons now had the better of possession and territory for some considerable time.
Similarly, Bath soaked up the pressure, and cleared their lines through Berne when Newcastle were penalised for holding on. Bath won the lineout, but remained in their own half until Cheeseman made a break and Berne slipped through a couple of tackles, making it beyond the home side's 22. Newcastle rallied to stem the flow of the attack, but Berne finished things off with a drop goal, securing Bath's first away win in the league this season.
Steve Meehan said afterwards: "I thought our defence was outstanding. We had to defend for long periods but it was a courageous display."
The result will put them in good heart before the European Challenge Cup final on 19th May, and with a clean bill of health from the game, the Head Coach said: "We have got some difficult decisions in regards to our starting XV." But any selectorial headaches should be of the more pleasant sort after today's performance.
4: Try Short, 0-5
38: Try Bory, Conversion Barkley, 0-12
42: Try Buist, Con Flood, 7-12
48: Try Berne, 7-17
59: Try Tait, 12-17
80+6: Drop goal Berne, 12-20
BATH: 15. M Stephenson 4. T Cheeseman 13. C Walker (Maddock, 65) 12. O Barkley 11. D Bory 10. S Berne 9. A Williams (Walshe, 75) 1. D Barnes (Ovens, 80+8) 2. L Mears (Dixon, 75) 3. M Stevens 4. S Borthwick (captain) 5. D Grewcock (Beattie, 49) 6. P Short 7. M Lipman (Scaysbrook, 41) 8. I Feaunati (Goodman, 69)
Replacements: 16. P Dixon 17. L Ovens 18. A Beattie 19. J Scaysbrook 20. C Goodman 21. N Walshe 22. J Maddock
NEWCASTLE: 15. M Burke (captain) 14. T May (Phillips, 49) 13. M Tait 12. J Noon (Crichton, 69) 11. J Rudd 10. T Flood 9. J Grindal (Charlton, 69) 1. J McDonnell (Ward, 78) 2. A Long (Thompson, 41) 3. M Ward (Golding, 59) 4. M Sorenson 5. J Oakes (Buist, 41) 6. G Parling (Wilson, 49) 7. B Woods 8. P Dowson
Replacements: 16. J Golding 17. M Thompson 18. A Buist 19. B Wilson 20. L Crichton 21. H Charlton 22. O Phillips
Referee: R Debney