Bath 21 Leicester Tigers 20
It was an afternoon for ripping up the script and unlikely heroes stepping up as Bath snatched a one-point victory at the death. Ben Spencer kicked the winning conversion after a patchy performance to keep his side in the hunt for a top-four finish.
If the game were to have played out as it looked it might at the hour mark, George Ford would have been the hero of the day for his use of spiral bombs. Just after half-time, one of these kicks proved too much for England team-mate Anthony Watson and it led to Leicester’s Argentine centre Matias Moroni scoring a crucial try to pull the visitors 10 points ahead.
But if Ford was the man pulling the strings for Leicester – it was Zach Mercer, the No 8 who is due to depart for Montpellier at the end of the season, who, with his man-of-the-match performance, gave a good show of what English rugby will be missing next season.
The 23-year-old has opted for the Top 14 move after falling out of Eddie Jones’s sights despite earning two England caps in 2018. But he has since faded away from Test contention following a knee injury.
Mercer set up Bath’s opening try for England sevens product Will Muir. Mercer was key at the breakdown, where Leicester were muscular and was consistently excellent with ball in hand.
Watson explained after the game he had been “stand-offish and hostile” towards Mercer upon hearing of the former England Under-20s captain’s move and believes his recent performances mark out his character.
“Zach has been outstanding for the last four or five games. To be honest I did question his decision [to move to Montpellier], I was probably a bit hostile to him,” he said.
“But the player that he is, he has shown he can grind it out with the lads and taking every opportunity to take this club forward is testament to him. It made me feel like a bit of an idiot for how I was hostile towards him.
“He has been world class, he is one of our best performers, week in, week out. For someone to do that and be leaving at the end of the year shows the type of bloke he is and I am very proud of him as a team-mate.”
On paper at the start of the season another unlikely hero is 25-year-old Muir, who was made redundant when the Rugby Football Union scrapped its sevens programmes last August. The Yorkshireman made it five tries in three games in his first outing after serving a two-match ban for a tip tackle against London Irish last month.
His brace included the final crucial try where he looked to injure his foot having already picked up a knock that caused him to have heavy strapping applied. This score came about after referee Luke Pearce penalised Leicester’s South African-born back row Jasper Wiese, who otherwise was in excellent form, lost his cool with Mercer and pulled his collar.
Bath’s penultimate try, which saw them get back in the game, came via replacement second row Miles Reid with 15 minutes left on the clock.
Spencer had the final say and atoned for what was an average performance by the former Saracens scrum-half’s standards. He opted to kick to touch right before half-time rather than take what was a kickable penalty only for the ball to be gathered with ease by Leicester wing Harry Potter.
Bath director of rugby Stuart Hooper said Spencer stood up when he had to. “You have got a guy out there who stepped up to kick that last kick which was absolutely class from him.
“He is a world-class player and we are not going to put world-class players into boxes and allow them to do what they think is right on the field at the time.”
Discussing the importance of the result, Hooper said: “That is a great example of Premiership Rugby. Things didn’t go our way, it wasn’t pretty, but we found a way to win.
“These boys have come together really well and you will see from the lads they are enjoying it. The top four is achievable. That is why we are here.”
Watson harboured a similar sentiment batting away questions on Lions selection in favour of his “desperation” to win with his club. “We gave ourselves a crack today in terms of getting into the top four in the Premiership and we have the Challenge Cup as well. They are at the front of my mind because I have been here so long and I haven’t won any silverware and that is where my focus is.
“Most people have written us off but I am very happy to sit down in the trenches with these guys and try and grind it out for a top four finish.”
Tigers coach Steve Borthwick said: “I think there is plenty for us to learn from the game but the players’ effort was absolutely magnificent.”