Carl Fearns has enjoyed an excellent season for Bath and made a match-clinching cameo from the bench in Saturday's semi-final against Leicester Tigers
In every title-winning campaign there is an unsung hero, a player who is largely unheralded yet integral to success.
For Bath this year, the under-the-radar star has been Carl Fearns. Though he can only boast seven starts across the season, coming off the bench in 12 more matches, his club might be in trouble without his immense impact.
Following a 47-10 thrashing of Leicester, Mike Ford‘s men stand 80 minutes away from translating promise and eye-catching performances into Premiership glory.
At Twickenham against Saracens, who pride themselves on relentless tenacity and work-rate, Fearns’ controlled menace could prove pivotal. The tie is being billed as Bath’s sparkling attack clashing with immovable defence. Even so the likes of George Ford and Jonathan Joseph will be snuffed out without some initial go-forward.
While his hallmarks is raw intensity, Fearns is also an authoritative figure that reads the game accurately. He turns 26 this week but seems far older, both in appearance and nous.
When Fearns took the field on Saturday shortly before the hour-mark, Bath looked to have realised what they were about to achieve – and were utterly terrified.
Though they were 21-10 ahead, their set-piece had gone to custard opposite the outstanding Tigers front row and some iffy decision-making was creeping in. In fact, from Ford’s kick-off to begin the second half – which sailed out on the full – through to the 56th minute, Bath temporarily misplaced their mojo amid the significance of the occasion.
The 11 seasons since their previous final outing were weighing heavy, oppressively so. Given Leicester’s know-how, this was always the danger.
Assessing the situation
The below pattern from a lineout demonstrated how Bath’s instincts were perhaps being stunted:
Ford’s high ball resulted in a scrum to Bath, but the reluctance to keep the ball in hand and trust their phase-play is odd, especially given the penetration of their earlier attacks.
Back to a full complement of 15 players following the return of Anthony Watson and Leroy Houston from the sin-bin, there is no excuse. In the event, Leicester won the ensuing set-piece against the head anyway, and could assert pressure for a decent period of possession.
Then Fearns replaced Houston and went to work. Notice that he makes a beeline for Ford on taking the field:
There is always a bit of guess-work involved in lip-reading, but it appears as though Fearns is relaying a message and mouths the word ‘play’, which would absolutely make sense.
Afterwards, Mike Ford spoke of how Bath lapsed into some aimless rugby either side of half-time. At this point, they needed to reverse Tigers’ building momentum, so keeping the ball and challenging the Leicester line was essential.
Hands to the pump
First though, some defending needed to be done. Fearns threw himself into the job at hand, making this excellent hit on Jamie Gibson:
Speeding up as Ben Youngs probes around the fringes and is stopped by Matt Garvey, he first blocks any pass to either Ed Slater or Dan Cole:
The Tiger scrum-half does manage to link with Gibson. However, Fearns readjusts and buries his man:
Two phases later, Leicester cough up. Fearns, who has got back onto his feet and into the game, has an important, if subtle role:
Nick Auterac makes the hit on Christian Loamanu that forces the ball loose and Garvey collects. Fearns is hovering close by and notices Julian Salvi move in:
He immediately clears out the Australian before the ball can be threatened:
Leicester were so persistent, and kept coming at Bath in wave after wave. As ever, Tom Youngs was a willing carrier. Here, he is stopped by Fearns and Garvey:
Notice how the tacklers retain their balance and make Leicester move them from the contact area:
Their presence means the ruck is slow. Even more crucially, as Fearns is not put on the floor, he can sweep around and contribute to the defensive effort:
Though Vereniki Goneva stretches Kyle Eastmond and Joseph, the industry pays off when Cole tries to trundle around the fringe:
Fearns comes back into shot as fellow replacement Rob Webber downs Cole…
Brad Thorn and Marcos Ayerza shunt Fearns away, but that only leaves Joseph free to latch on and encourage referee JP Doyle to award the penalty for holding on:
From there, Bath could get out of their own half. Winning another penalty soon afterwards, they kicked for touch and won a lineout in a strong position.
Blowing it open
Though a catch-and-drive derailed, Fearns grabbed the attack by the scruff and instigated a match-winning score:
All season he has been a domineering force on the gain-line. His footwork to unbalance Slater, explosive power and deft offload to Francois Louw – who in turn puts away Peter Stringer – is exceptional.
Here is a closer angle:
Precisely five minutes later, Fearns lit the touch paper again, this time from a scrum:
Bath were battered by Cole and Ayerza for most of the afternoon. In this instance though, Fearns tears away from the base before too much pressure can come through.
His pace is impressive and his timing of pass perfect, tying in both Slater and Freddie Burns before releasing Ford:
Staying in the game once more – a feature of this performance – Fearns followed up to clear Slater from the ensuing ruck after Semesa Rokoduguni takes it in:
Bath move left into midfield, finding fluency at last, and then bounce back right to devastating effect:
Fearns does not touch the ball in this decisive phase. Still, his presence holds Slater while Gibson must look after the fringes. Ford can isolate Goneva and free Rokoduguni:
Fire and ice
By deploying Fearns on the bench, Mike Ford ensured 24 minutes of massive energy. Indeed, the back-rower was effervescent. At the restart after Ford’s try, he was on the scene.
A burly tackle topples Salvi before Fearns gets to his feet and makes a nuisance of himself at the ruck, sending a boot through the breakdown to disrupt Leicester’s ball:
Eventually, from a cohesive kick-chase, Bath did overturn possession. They were then deadly:
Many forwards panic and flounder when they found themselves in midfield. Not Fearns. Played in by Joseph, he stays calm.
Realising that such a vast expanse of space would be best exploited by someone quicker than he, there is a straightforward transfer to Watson:
The conversion puts Bath 40-10 up and the courageous Tigers crack. Dave Attwood careers upfield. Fearns is hungry for even more work:
This carry comes to nothing when Ford aims an audacious chip into the dead-ball area.
Soon enough though, with Leicester trying to spark something from deep, Fearns is involved:
A turnover-inducing challenge epitomised how Fearns turned the tables in terms of physicality. Though the ball has gone past him to the left, he keeps pressing:
When Salvi cuts back, he is taken low by Dominic Day and Garvey. Fearns steps in, targets the ball and clobbers his opponent around the sternum:
Given half a chance, Bath ended on a fittingly clinical note, Ollie Devoto assisting Watson:
So ended the semi-final, capping a hugely influential effort from Fearns that truly swung the outcome towards Bath.
Sam Burgess has started the past five Premiership matches at blindside flanker. At a raucous Rec, Fearns could not have put together a more compelling case to wear the number six shirt against Saracens in the season decider.
The ball is in Mike Ford court. He has a potentially crucial call to make.
Thanks to BT Sport and Premiership Rugby for the match footage. You can purchase tickets to the Aviva Premiership final at Twickenham here.