Neither side had anything to play for, and it showed. An amusing first half deteriorated into a mind-numbing second, where two of English rugby’s fallen giants attempted to outdo each other in contriving ways not to win. In the end, it was entirely fitting that Rhys Priestland stepped up to kick the winning penalty after yet another innocuous offence at a scrum had invited him to the tee. Last-minute wins do not come much less inspiring than that.
Which is a shame, because it had started as the sort of nothing game that might incline the teams to express themselves. With both teams so hopelessly adrift, a good crowd could look forward, at least, to studying the form of various internationals. Quickly the game became a shoot-out between back-row forwards, Welsh and English, who might hope to feature in the Six Nations.
Thomas Young’s hopes there are forlorn it would seem for now, but his footwork and tenacity were influential. Not quite as influential, though, as the pace of Wales’s Taulupe Faletau, returning after 13 weeks out with a broken arm. He cruised through a gap in Wasps’ midfield, swatting aside Juan de Jongh and accelerating away as languidly as seems humanly possible for anyone, let alone those whose habitat is the brutality of the back row. He found Max Green on his shoulder, who scampered home.
So Nathan Hughes, another back row of Pacific heritage, showcased rather different qualities five minutes later. Wasps generally held the edge up front. They kicked to the corner three times in one series of penalties, which was finished when Hughes somehow forced his long arm free to dot down on the line.
Bath’s discipline was a serious problem last week, conceding 14 penalties in the second half alone of their Premiership defeat to Worcester (although it was hard to keep count). They conceded another eight in the first half here.
If discipline is a culture, Bath have suffered more than once from a certain laxness of attitude this season, most famously when Freddie Burns failed to finish what would have been a match-winner here against Toulouse in the first round, too preoccupied celebrating to ensure a clean touchdown. How a win then might have served Bath in this year’s tournament.
They vowed then to stop the showboating, but Zach Mercer, another back-row forward auditioning for the Six Nations, could not resist flapping his arms like a bird as he galloped home for Bath’s second try, released by Max Wright’s delayed pass. The boy has serious pace and power, which would serve any team well, international or otherwise. The adrenaline surge of a long run to the line in front of your home crowd might incline any of us into instinctive celebration. He got away with this one, and Bath took a 12-10 lead into the break.
A ninth penalty, just after the resumption, yielded the points with which Wasps retook the lead. It also signalled the meandering of the match into indifference, the pointlessness of it beginning to dawn. Bath won a penalty at a scrum this time, but they slavishly followed the fashion these days of turning down points in favour of the corner. Perhaps they wanted the practice of a set piece. They need it. The ball went west, as did the prospect of any points.
Wasps obliged on the hour with a show of indiscipline of their own, Lima Sopoaga’s shoulder charge as obvious a yellow as any. Priestland finally elected to take the points and with them the lead. Bath could do nothing with the one-man advantage. Worse, another scrum penalty allowed Rob Miller to kick Wasps into the lead once more.
In the last 10 minutes, Billy Searle missed an opportunity to extend that lead – from a scrum penalty. Faletau and Francois Louw butchered a chance for Bath to do so with a more inspiring type of score, before Ollie Atkins did the same. So it fell to Priestland to clinch the win in the most fitting manner. Ben Harris did not drive straight at a scrum. Apparently. By then, no one really cared.