Bath's twist in tale

Bath 38 Sale 38 John Liley's missed kick costs Leicester the Courage title as his brother Rob levels at the death for Sale
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The Independent Online
Never in the history of the league has there been anything quite like this. None of those packed in the Recreation Ground could be quite sure when the final whistle blew whether Bath, by drawing with Sale, who had come up alongside with Rob Liley's conversion in the third minute of injury time, had lost the league title.

Only two minutes before Liley's successful kick, his elder brother, John, was narrowly failing with a penalty attempt at Welford Road which would have earned Leicester a one-point win over Harlequins to retain the Courage title. Leicester's defeat meant that no matter what happened here, Bath were the league champions for the sixth time.

When the referee blew for full-time, it was apparent that the Bath team did not know whether to laugh or cry, but most of them, having let slip a massive lead, were inclined to the latter. It was only when minutes later they stepped forward to take the trophy that they could believe it.

But Bath's director of rugby, John Hall, underlined the club's self-critical attitude when, even as they were claiming the silverware, he said: "To draw takes a bit of pleasure out of winning the title - but Leicester must be sicker than us."

The Recreation Ground sparkled: the crowd in shirt-sleeve order and carnival mood had come to celebrate another title. And until half-time there was never the slightest doubt that they would be disappointed.

From the moment that Jon Callard kicked a penalty after three minutes and Andy Nicol scored the first of Bath's five tries, the crowned-again champions were at their irresistible best - 32 points ahead and coasting. Perhaps that was the problem. It had been too easy. So complete was the transformation after the interval that Sale twice threatened the opposition's seemingly unassailable lead before that breathtaking final act.

This complete reversal of fortunes coincided with the appearance of Paul Turner as the half-time replacement for Jim Mallinder. With Turner's masterful orchestrations from fly-half, Sale's three-quarters took on a new lease of life.

They were hugely helped by Bath's fragile tackling, which at times was non-existent. Nevertheless, Jos Baxendell, who scored two tries, proved a handful in midfield as did Chris Yates, whose try it was that Liley converted to draw his team level.

When Bath were at their best in that devastating first-half spell, they were in a class of their own. Their running and passing gave full range to their collective and individual skills. Of the latter there were too many to recount. There was the power, pace and precision of the back row. If Ben Clarke is persuaded to take the money and run to Richmond, Bath need have no qualms about his replacement. The day and the game were made for Eric Peters. Together with Andy Robinson and Steve Ojomoh, they gave the Sale defence a terrible battering.

But no defence, no matter how well it is marshalled, could hope to cover all the angles. Nor could they legislate for the exquisite handling of Jeremy Guscott when he swept up Martin Haag's pass from his toes and accelerated into space with the line at his mercy. Unfortunately for Guscott and for Bath, before he could reach it he pulled up with a recurrence of the thigh injury which had raised questions over his fitness before this match.

He is now doubtful for the Pilkington Cup final at Twickenham on Saturday. As Nicol also left the field at half-time, Bath's day was not one of undiluted celebration. It was nevertheless, both to the fiercely partisan, and totally uncommitted an unforgettable day.

Bath: J Callard; A Lumsden, A Adebayo, J Guscott (F Waters, 34), J Sleightholme; M Catt, A Nicol (C Harrison, 40); K Yates, G French, J Mallett (D Crompton, 25-28), M Haag, N Redman, A Robinson, S Ojomoh, E Peters.

Sale: J Mallinder (P Turner, 40); D Rees, J Baxendell, G Higginbotham, C Yates; R Liley, C Saverimutto (M Warr, 64-73); P Smith, L Hewson; A Smith, J Fowler, D Erskine, D O'Grady, A Morris, N Ashurst.

Referee: B Campsall (Yorkshire).

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