Rugby Union: Mather's big splash makes little impact

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Bath 27

Sale 3

BARRIE-JON MATHER'S situation summed up perfectly the state of affairs at a sodden Recreation Ground yesterday. Everyone had been keenly awaiting his confrontation with Jeremy Guscott but it never happened.

After splashing off an hour into a dour match, Mather, the former Castleford Rugby League three-quarter called up earlier this week into the same England squad as Bath's Guscott, said: "What can I say? I didn't touch the ball once. No one ran into me. I didn't make a tackle either. I tried to get involved but I couldn't. It was the least interesting match I've ever played in."

Guscott fared little better. Three touches and a couple of kicks to mark his 250th appearance for the club.

It was not quite as bad as that, although it did need time to get going. Hard grind and bags of effort resulted in the superlative Bath pack putting their captain Richard Webster over after Ben Sturnham, who had a fine game in the second row, won yet another line-out following a penalty touch kick. Then their other lock, Nigel Redman, made huge strides upfield ably driven by the forwards and the replacement scrum-half Andy Nicol picked up and darted through.

Mike Catt's goal-kicking was its usual near-immaculate self and, after a great deal of swampy work, Bath finally mastered the conditions to consolidate their position at the top of the Allied Dunbar Premiership.

The Rec, usually susceptible to the slightest sign of precipitation, had held up well under the deluge and the match went ahead, albeit later than scheduled. While everyone knew the clocks had to go back, no one expected the kick-off to be put back, but it was, by quarter of an hour, because of the press of people who had left their arrival as late as possible - not sure if there would be a match to watch.

There was such a log-jam at the gates that it was decided to delay the start to try to get everyone in. And given the appalling conditions it was remarkable how many people (and the majority of them are exposed to the elements on this council-owned ground) were prepared to brave the weather.

It was almost like old times, the players plastered in mud, the ball an elusive, slippery bit part and the only scores a penalty goal per side in the opening half-hour. There was no doubt who was on top. But Bath just could not find an orthodox way through the solid Sale defences. Scrum after scrum, drive after line-out; the pressure was immense but Sale were the equal of it. In the end the breakthrough was as much down to Sale as it was to the hard-working Bath side.

The referee Ashley Rowden - something of a hoodoo as far as Bath are concerned given that he was in charge of the ear-biting match against London Scottish last year and sent off Ben Sturnham (erroneously as it turned out) at the beginning of the month - ruled that Sale had pulled down one maul too many and awarded a penalty try which Mike Catt converted.

Without that Bath would have been looking a little sick. They created a few chances, the only clear-cut one though saw the scrum-half Steve Hatley's pass to Iain Balshaw miss the left wing and go straight into touch just a couple of strides from the line. Sale generally turned over far too much possession and did not use what little they had all that well.

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).