Rugby Union: Bath dazzle in the gloom

Bath 27 Sale 3
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ADAPTABILITY IS a key element of survival technique and Allied Dunbar Premiership leaders Bath are almost chameleon-like in their ability to adjust to situations. While the country dripped and drowned under an area of low pressure, Sale were subjected to intense pressure of another sort as Bath tightened up and pressed for a hard-won victory in appalling conditions.

They had an encouragingly large crowd to witness their expert demolition of a surprisingly featureless side. The performance had John Mitchell, Sale's coach, tipping them for honours already. "They are championship material," waxed Mitchell. "They are the best team we have played this far. I thought they looked very, very good. That is the best I've seen them play in my three years here. There is something about them this season."

There is quite a lot to Bath and more is to be added. All Black scrum- half Jon Preston will be available to them from next Saturday and Mitchell, a New Zealander is in no doubt about the impact Preston will have. "Jon is a great goal kicker and an excellent kicker from hand. His box kicks are superb and he can also play at fly-half."

The Bath coach, Andy Robinson, cannot wait. "Preston will help us take our game further forward," he said. "I am open-minded about where he plays. He will be a challenge to everyone in those positions."

This theme of utility players does not end with the backs either. Ben Sturnham grows in stature in the line-out, having moved up to the second row from the back three. "I think second row is his best position," said Robinson. "He can jump at two or four or at the back because of his experience in the back row. He brings more mobility to our pack."

Jon Callard, Bath's assistant coach, added: "Ben is a very strong player, a ball-carrying, ball-winning forward and he fits the bill as far as we are concerned."

Sale certainly lacked punch up front and turned over so much possession that, had the conditions been better, Bath might have run up a cricket score. No wonder Mitchell is champing at he bit to complete the signing of Gloucester and England hooker Phil Greening, whom he ranks with Leicester's Richard Cockerill best two hookers in England.

"We are confident of getting Greening," said Mitchell. "It is just down to documentation. We are almost there. I think Wednesday is the deadline. He is a very important player to us. I think he will add a lot of strength to our team. I will get him fitter and get him involved and I know he will like the way we want to play."

Graham Dawe, the former England and Bath hooker who is now on the Sale coaching staff underlined the qualities Greening will bring to the side. "He is first and foremost a ball carrier who gets over the advantage line," said Dawe. "He can get in behind defences. Technically he is sound, although players can always improve technique as long as they have the heart for it and the athleticism."

Bath: Tries Penalty try, Webster, Nicol; Conversions Catt 3; Penalties Catt 2. Sale: Penalty Howarth.

Bath: M Perry; I Evans, K Maggs, J Guscott, I Balshaw; M Catt, S Hatley (A Nicol, 65); D Hilton (K Yates, 65), A Long (M Regan, 65), V Ubogu, N Redman, B Sturnham, N Thomas, E Peters, R Webster (capt).

Sale: S Howarth (capt); S Davidson, B-J Mather (J Mallinder, 62), J Devereux, T Beim; J Baxendell, R Smith (K Ellis, 52); D Bell, D Geraghty (S Diamond, 62), A Smith (D Williamson, 32-36), S Raiwalui, C Murphy (D Baldwin, 62), P Anglesea, D O'Cuinneagain, A Sanderson.

Referee: A Rowden (Thatcham).