With the end of the season in sight, the match against Leicester Tigers promised to be a tough battle. Following a strong win last weekend, Bath continued with their winning form this evening to slot back into second place in the Guinness Premiership table with a thrilling 26 - 12 win.
With unrelenting pressure from the forwards at the outset, Steve Borthwick wasted no time in making a hole in the midfield, enabling Butch James to boot into the top right hand corner of the Tiger's 22. Leicester's Brett Deacon attempted to make a break out of the danger zone and cleared the ball to the 22 metre line just moments before being taken down. After just two minutes, Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu, having spied a gap in the Tiger defence, made a fast run towards the white line. Failing to score the try, he made a quick ball pass to Matt Stevens, who instead won the five points for Bath. James failed to convert.
Three minutes later, and determined to make a mark on this match, Michael Claassens, embraced the return of his South African counterpart, and ran down midfield into the 22, where he off-loaded to the fly half to continue the surge. Being unable to shake the Tiger from his feet, James hit the floor in the middle of the 22, and although it appeared that Joe Maddock might finish the sprint for the line, the ball bounced into touch in the top right-hand corner.
Ten minutes gone and Leicester finally tried to join the game, with some good interplay between Ian Humphreys, Matt Cornwell and Tom Varndell which gave them some distance towards the homeside's territory. Fuimaono-Sapolu, proving that his shirt was well-earned tonight, skipped back through the midfield defence, side-stepping his way back down the pitch. Falling prey to the pressure put upon them by the energetic west-country side, the Tigers offended, allowing Butch James to rectify his missed conversion and score a penalty instead at 17 minutes.
With tempers flaring in the Leicester camp, Claassens made a swift off-load to Jonny Faamatuainu who made a long pass to Borthwick, as the ball travelled from the right wing to the left. From the ensuing ruck, Lee Mears spun to Fuimaono-Sapolu, who in turn flipped the ball to Alex Crockett, but the centre failed to keep hold and the chance for a second try was lost. After play had returned up the wing through Leicester's hands, Andrew Higgins made a strong break through a gaping hole and with the Tigers failing to make the chase, the winger breeched the 10 metre line before passing to the Bath captain Steve Borthwick to drive forcefully onwards. On the floor, Ayoola Erinle submitted to the frustrations of the score-gap and lashed out at scrum half Claassens. His yellow card gave James the chance to put his boot back into action for a further three points with a penalty kick taking the score to 11-0 at 31 minutes.
Responding to Bath's increasing points, Varndell distributed the ball to Cornwell, who hurled to Pienaar on the left wing, but Fuimaono-Sapolu, once again seeing an opportunity to retrieve lost ground, sprinted down the middle of the park for James to finish the run. However, the South African was once again nipped at the ankles and tackled in the middle of the 22, but with some quick passing out to the left wing, Jonny Faamatuainu offered a show and go to slip over the line. Unfortunately, with the ball remaining by his knees, the Samoan failed to ground and the try was disallowed. Leicester did not enjoy the escape for long, and strong pressure from Bath gave Lee Mears the opportunity to dive over the line at pace between the posts for his first try this season. A conversion by James gave Bath an 18-point lead by 40 minutes.
Not satisfied with his five points, Mears pushed the ball to the fly half, James, who offloaded to Maddock to catapult up the right wing. The full back didn't score and instead the ball was carried to the left wing through the forwards where Bath steamrollered the ball towards the line for a ruck in the top left-hand corner. Using his height and a little bit of cheek, Matt Banahan's 6ft 7 frame escaped the close quarter defence and planted the ball over the top of the fallen players for a sneaky five points before the half-time whistle. With James missing a tricky diagonal conversion, the home team ran back to the sheds with a 23 -0 lead.
Returning onto the pitch for the second half, Bath put on equal pressure from the start, running the ball instantly deep inside the 22. Still unable to balance the weight of the attack put upon them, the Tigers were penalised for use of the elbow and after just four minutes, James had taken the score up by three points with a penalty kick directly in front of the posts.
At the restart, Leicester worked hard to create a good position back inside Bath's 22, and Humphreys attempted to draw their attention for long enough to create a gap, but after a forward pass to Erinle, the good headway they had finally achieved towards the white line was lost, as the referee pulled them back to the 22 for a scrum. However, Humphrey's efforts paid off six minutes later, as he was able to break away from Banahan, and skip over the line for five points. Unfortunately for the visitors, Leicester's fly half Christophe Laussucq failed to rack up the seven points, as his conversion went just wide of the right-hand post.
As the rain started to pour, the Tigers gathered some momentum, keeping possession for the first time in the match well inside Bath's territory, forcing the home side to make four times more tackles as in the first, in an attempt to halt the progression towards the try line. Daniel Browne offered Bath some respite as he collected the ball and made an aggressive drive, but with the fresh legs of Johne Murphy, who had come on at half-time for Ollie Dodge, a quick sprint with the support of Sam Vesty in the midfield allowed Leicester to retain the ball and stop Bath from winning any further points at 67 minutes.
Displaying a technique that they lacked in the first half, Leicester's constant attack put Bath on the back foot as the Tigers fought to get back into the game. After a boot from Michael Claassens reduced Bath to 14 men, Varndell made a dash for the top left-hand corner, but as he received a forward pass, his crossing over the line did not award Leicester with the much-needed five points and with just eight minutes left on the clock, the score remained at 26 -5 to Bath.
Leicester did not relent in their barrage attack, and as Vesty chased a grubber kick that had been shot inside the 22, Banahan tackled a player off the ball, reducing Bath further to just 13 men with four minutes to go. Becoming tired by the impact of the Tigers, Fuimaono-Sapolu and Jonny Faamatuainu were replaced by Chris Goodman and Michael Stephenson in an attempt to bring fresh energy to the mix, but it was not enough to stop Leicester from winning one final try before the final whistle as Vesty, tackled dangerously close to the touchline by Higgins and Maddock, off-loaded back towards Frank Murphy to take across the line. Humphreys secured the conversion.
Eight minutes into injury time and with the fans baying for blood, Bath made another ditch attempt to secure the bonus point as Olly Barkley, having joined the fray at 68 minutes, kicked the ball into the top left hand corner. However, Leicester held off for the dying minutes and with the crowds cheering loudly, the final whistle blew with a victorious 26-12 win for Bath.