TOM BRADSHAW: Heineken Cup absence is keenly felt at The Rec
There was a spectre haunting The Rec on Saturday. Never mind the ghost of Christmas Past, this was the ghost of the Heineken Cup.
The sound beating handed to Bath by Saracens was in no small part due to Charlie Hodgson's marksmanship and the streetwise way the visitors handled the atrocious conditions.
But I'd suggest another factor was the contrasting build-ups the two sides had experienced over the preceding fortnight of European rugby.
Bath played back-to-back fixtures against an effectively second-tier Italian side, winning both games by a handsome margin.
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Sarries, by contrast, arrived at The Rec following an altogether sterner ordeal – consecutive games against one of the titans of the European club game, Munster.
Moreover, they arrived on the crest of a wave having seen off the former European champions at Vicarage Road.
Calvisano and Munster. Amlin and Heineken. Chalk and cheese.
The level of intensity required to front up against the former bears no resemblance to what the latter requires. As such, it cannot come as a surprise that Bath took a while to warm to their task on Saturday – by which point Saracens had the game by the scruff of the neck.
The logic here is that playing in the Amlin Cup doesn't just hinder your chances of competing against the best in Europe, it can hinder your ability to keep pace with the best in the Premiership.
Bath were distinctly off that pace on Saturday, although there were brief flashes of encouragement. They got their mauling working to potent effect on a couple of occasions and had the Sarries scrum in trouble early in the first period.
But at key moments, the Saracens set-piece delivered – and the visitors kept the scoreboard turning over.
Bath head coach Gary Gold spoke ahead of this fixture of how Saracens had set the benchmark in the Premiership. Measured against that benchmark, Bath are some distance away from hitting the standards of their rivals.
Coach Mike Ford admitted as much after the final whistle, before adding: "We're not slitting our throats yet."
The majority of the Premiership season is played in poor weather and Saracens delivered a masterclass in not only coping with the elements but in turning them to their advantage. As Bath's knock-on count crept up, so did Sarries' stranglehold.
It couldn't have been a much more dismal start to the festive period for Bath and their supporters. The resolve of Gold's side will now be put to the test with consecutive away matches against Exeter and Wasps.
It isn't a fixture card for the faint-hearted but it's one which could play a large part in determining whether Bath are in contention for Heineken Cup rugby next season.