Rugby Union: Bath escape the full Sale onslaught

Sale 11 Bath 13
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The Independent Online
There was a time when Bath would take the difficult games in their stride. But those days have gone; perhaps for ever. They at least earned the satisfaction of winning a tremendously tight match at Heywood Road yesterday which brought to an end the depressing sequence of results that had seen them win just one league game away from the Rec since March when they won at West Hartlepool.

By doing so Bath have hauled themselves away from the relegation area - assuming of course that there will be one and another restructuring will not bring us an enlarged Allied Dunbar Premiership One of 14 teams - and Sale will now struggle to reproduce the form of last season which almost took them to a place in the European Cup.

Bath, before any other English club, defined the necessity of collective will, and enlarged beyond all expectation the parameters of the team-spirit ethos. Bath's approach work, not to mention their attention to detail over the past 14 years, has been a prolonged metaphor for success. And what success there has been.

League champions six times, they have accumulated a total of 10 John Player and Pilkington Cups, but last season, despite being runner-ups in the league, they finished out of the silverware. The last time that happened was 1988. Such has been the erratic nature of their form this campaign there are few sure signs that the decline has been arrested.

Yes, there was the Heineken European Cup semi-final defeat of Pau last week to lift Bath's spirits, but before they can approach the final against Brive at Le Stade Lescure in Bordeaux on 31 January with any confidence, Bath need to acquire rather more of that precious quality than has been evident in recent weeks.

In an attempt to drive out any complacency, Bath's coach, Andy Robinson, made several changes after the Pau victory. Out went Jon Callard, whose five penalties contributed much to the French team's demise, to be replaced by Matt Perry. Mike Catt moved into the centre to make way for Rich Butland an outside-half, while the pack was reshaped to accommodate John Mallett, Brian Cusack and Eric Peters.

To some extent the changes worked, though the result of a thunderous match was in doubt until the final whistle. By then Bath had been obliged to withstand a series of assaults on their line as Sale attempted to batter their way to victory.

Had Tom Beim's 77th-minute try not been scored so wide out on the right, Shane Howarth might have made the conversion.

Even then Bath were not completely in the clear. Sale quickly reasserted themselves and deserved a penalty in a much more favourable position when Andy Nicol kicked the ball into the crowd once a scrum had been ordered. The referee John Pearson would have none of it, though Simon Mannix could still have snatched the game for Sale. But the outside-half's attempt at a dropped goal was headed off course by the replacement forward Eric Peters.

"I hit it sweetly and it was going over," confirmed Mannix, while Peters said: "I tried to charge it down and the ball took a glancing blow off my forehead." The Scottish international added: "I always try to knock them into the far corner!"

Howarth and Catt had each kicked two penalties in the first half, when neither side were able to produce the skill or vision to take control. Butland's try and Catt's conversion shortly after the break were merely the precursors to Sale's blitzkrieg finish. Somehow Bath withstood the battering and for that virtue alone deserved to win.

Sale: J Mallinder (capt); D Rees, J Baxendell, S Howarth, T Beim; S Mannix, K Ellis; D Williamson (M Driver, 71), S Diamond (G Dawe, 51), D Bell, S Raiwalui, D Baldwin, D Erskine, P Sanderson (D O'Cuinneagain, 74), C Vyvyan.

Bath: M Perry (J Callard, 74); I Evans, P de Glanville, M Catt, A Adebayo; R Butland, A Nicol (capt); K Yates, M Regan, J Mallett (V Ubogo, 74), N Redman, B Cusack, N Thomas (R Earnshaw, 78), R Webster, E Peters.

Referee: J Pearson (Yarm, Teesside).