A last-minute converted try gave Bath Rugby a 32-31 victory over Leicester Tigers in the final match of the Gallagher Premiership season at Welford Road on Saturday.
Replacement prop Jacques van Rooyen was the man who forced his way over the tryline for the decisive score, converted by Rhys Priestland, as Bath denied the Tigers, who finished the season in 11th place in the table.
In a high-tempo first quarter, the teams traded blows with Bath scoring after just three minutes through Anthony Watson and Tigers responding with Will Spencer claiming his first try for the club. Bath created a second for Joe Cokanasiga but, despite having a score by Brendon O’Connor disallowed, Tigers came back to lead 13-12 with a George Ford penalty.
O’Connor got his reward soon afterwards as he scored to stretch the lead as Tigers looked to finish the season on a high note and it was 26-15 in the home side’s favour at half-time.
The gap was down to just four points, though, early in the second period before Clayton Blommetjies dived in for a try.
But Bath dominated possession on their rivals’ tryline in the closing spell and eventually edged their way towards the line for the winning score.
It was an emotional afternoon with seven players making their final appearance for Tigers, including Matt Smith who ran out ahead of his team-mates in his 228th game for the club. He was straight into the game too with a big hit on Bath back-row Tom Ellis as he caught the kick-off from George Ford.
But the game was less than three minutes old when Bath broke through, breaking the defensive line near halfway and then outnumbering the covering defence for Watson to score despite George Ford and George Worth combining just in front of the posts to bring down Will Chudley. The scrum-half looked up just in time to see Watson in support and he scored next to the posts. Freddie Burns added the kick for a 7-0 lead.
A high tackle gave Ford a chance to respond from the tee, lining up a kick from 45 metres and putting three points on the board at The Robin Hood Stand End.
Soon afterwards, Spencer’s dominant tackle near halfway brought another penalty Tigers’ way and this time Ford pushed play into the right-hand corner, where the forwards set up a drive and Spencer made the last push over the line. After checking TMO replays, the referee awarded the score. Ford added the extras to put Tigers 10-7 in front.
But the lead lasted only a couple of minutes as Bath won turnover ball and Joe Cokanasiga scored in the left-hand corner. The crowd and the home team believed the scoring pass had gone forward and Burns hurriedly took his conversion attempt but failed to add the two points.
Tigers responded with what they thought was a superb score from O’Connor in his final appearance at Welford Road from a move started by Ford just outside his own 22. After taking play to the left, Blommetjies attacked down the touchline and flicked the ball inside for Worth who drew the last defender before putting O’Connor in to score. The referee checked, this time for evidence of a foot in touch in the build-up, and eventually decided that Blommetjies had brushed the chalk so brought play back for a lineout.
The crowd were certainly fired up as Tigers tore forward again, winning a penalty at a breakdown on the Bath 22, and Ford kicked his team into a 13-12 lead with the game still just 18 minutes old.
Bath then threatened on their right, taking play almost within reach of the line before being smothered by the Tigers defence, with the referee then favouring the defenders over the ball with a penalty award.
A huge kick from Ford led to a knock-on from Bath and a penalty on halfway, which he drilled into the right-hand corner. After Dan Cole provided momentum with his charge in possession and Tigers playing with penalty advantage “for multiple offsides”, flanker O’Connor made up for his earlier disappointment with the vital final metre over the line to score.
Another conversation with the TMO followed but referee Craig Maxwell-Keys was happy that the Kiwi had picked up from behind the ball and awarded the score. Ford added a conversion to make it 20-12.
Bath were warned about indiscipline after another penalty at the breakdown as Ford stretched the lead to 23-12 on the half-hour.
An error from Cokanasiga gave Tigers a lineout in a promising position and Bath were in further trouble when Max Lahiff was yellow-carded at the next breakdown and Ford kicked another penalty. It was quickly cancelled out, though, as Rhys Priestland, on briefly for Burns, landed his own kick on the stroke of half-time to make it 26-15.
Burns was back on for the start of the second half and the visitors were quickly on the attack. When they were awarded a penalty in the corner, Burns tapped and looked to open up play, but the Tigers defence stood firm five metres out and eventually won a penalty of their own.
But Bath came back and were soon up against 14 men as Sam Aspland-Robinson received a yellow card for a deliberate knock-on in defence. And, as they kept ball in the corner, they claimed a third try when Beno Obano dotted down from close range. The referee checked with the TMO for a double movement as he stretched to score but the try stood and Burns made it 26-22 with the conversion.
Tigers came back with a try for Bloometjies after an impressive attack which involved heavy carries from the forwards and two breaks from Kyle Eastmond before the wing finally dived into the right-hand corner. The referee viewed numerous replays of the grounding as the ball squirted loose but eventually decided that the Tigers player had been in control as he slid to the line.
The coaching teams began to make their changes, with O’Connor and Sam Harrison earning a big ovation as they left on the 55-minute mark after Tigers had weathered another big period of Bath pressure, and there were tired bodies on both sides with the ball staying in play for long periods on a warm afternoon at the end of a nine-month season.
Both teams were still playing ball in hand and Tigers survived a scare when Francois Louw almost got on the end of some good work in the Bath attack but lost the ball in contact just short of the line.
The visitors remained in the danger zone for a lengthy period, though, with Tigers making tackles but unable to get the ball back, and Bath added three points with a penalty from Priestland on 65 minutes.
Graham Kitchener acknowledged the support of the home crowd as he brought to an end his eight years at the club with 15 minutes remaining and, after Ford had missed with a penalty from out wide, there was finally a pause in the action and Smith enjoyed a fantastic reception from all four sides of the stadium as his left the action in his final appearance after 14 seasons in the first-team squad..
A scrum penalty against Tigers on halfway allowed Priestland to present a platform on the left left touchline but Mike Fitzgerald, in a colossal shift in his farewell appearance, stole their lineout ball.
But Tigers were finding it tough to get back upfield as Bath, pursuing a place in the top six, finally got their rewards with a bonus-point score from prop Jacques van Rooyen from a succession of phases on the Tigers tryline. Priestland added the extras to take a 32-31 lead with less than a minute remaining on the clock and, after winning the restart, played out time.