Bath 18 Sale 16: Malone drops in to ruin Sale's Christmas

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The Independent Online

Something close to a full house turned up on the banks of the Avon for a fixture between a once-great club struggling for points and a champion side struggling for players. They did not see much in the way of champagne rugby, but the fog lifted sufficiently for them to witness a contest as honest and heavy-duty as the local real ale. Bath pinched it two minutes from time when Chris Malone, their oft-criticised outside-half, landed a drop-goal from the best part of 50 metres, but it would have been no travesty had an injury-ravaged Sale sneaked home with the spoils.

Bath have long had a tradition of losing coaches to England. Jack Rowell, Clive Woodward, Andy Robinson, Brian Ashton... all of them made the trip from the Recreation Ground to Twickenham, for better or worse.

Suddenly, the West Countrymen have another custom on the go. They are losing props like there is no tomorrow. Last night, the substantial tight-head specialists Matt Stevens and Duncan Bell were in the commentary box. The only reason David Flatman and Aaron Jarvis were not in there with them was a shortage of space.

This front-row plague led Steve Meehan, freshly confirmed as head coach after performing an "acting" role since the start of the season, to recruit the former Harlequins and Wasps prop Jon Dawson on loan from Cambridge University, for whom he played a blinder in the recent Varsity Match. He did not play a blinder on his debut here, sadly for his new colleagues. Penalised at the first scrum, he then ignored a decent set of runners going right, took the contact instead, finished a distant second to a phalanx of tacklers and was carried off with his right knee in pieces. That's education for you.

Inevitably, there was an "oh no, not again" feeling about the Bath forward effort for the rest of the first half. Danny Grewcock and company put together one beautifully organised driving maul off a line-out that churned and snarled its way 40 metres upfield, but all they gained from it was a one-man advantage, secured when Sebastien Chabal killed the ball five metres out and wandered off to the sin-bin for a 10-minute breather. The real threat from the home side was posed by their Samoan centre, Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu, who tested the Sale midfield to the limit with his low-slung step routines off either foot.

Truth to tell, the visitors offered precious little themselves. Ben Foden, a scrum-half in wing's clothing, showed enough cut and thrust to suggest the possibility of serious representative honours once he returns to his proper position, but there were no openings for the Jason Robinsons of this world. Instead, there was a flurry of drop-goal attempts best described as hopeful - or, to be perfectly accurate, hopeless. Daniel Larrechea was guilty of two of them, Lee Thomas was implicated in a third. Sale did not earn so much as a point from any of them, and quite right too.

They did, however, score a try from a different kind of Thomas kick - a high punt hung over the head of the Bath full-back Nick Abendanon on the stroke of half-time. Thomas chased hard in the belief that Abendanon would lose at least some of his bearings in the mist, and when the rebound duly occurred, Chris Bell found himself home free in acres of space. The centre hesitated for a moment, almost as if he could not believe his luck. Then, he disappeared into the distance to give Sale a one-point interval advantage at 10-9.

This upsetting development affected Bath profoundly, and their limp start to the second half allowed Thomas to extend the lead to seven points with a couple of sweetly struck penalties. At which point, Meehan started to play his cards.

James Scaysbrook and Rob Fidler were summoned from the bench to reinvigorate the pack, Olly Barkley replaced Abendanon at the back and suddenly, the balance of play tilted towards the home side.

Malone added to his three first-half penalties with two in the space of seven minutes in the final quarter, but missed two more highly kickable attempts to undermine his side's new-found dominance. It looked for all the world as though he would finish as the villain, but that final kick spared him the ignominy.

Bath: Penalties Malone 5; Drop goal Malone. Sale: Try Bell; Conversion Thomas; Penalties Thomas 3.

Bath: N Abendanon (O Barkley, 13); J Maddock, C Walker, E Fuimaono-Sapolu, D Bory; C Malone, N Walshe; D Barnes, L Mears, J Dawson (L Ovens, 16), P Short (R Fidler, 62), D Grewcock, A Beattie, J Faamatuainu (J Scaysbrook, 54), I Fea'unati (capt).

Sale: D Larrechea (S Hanley, 59); B Foden, C Mayor (M Taylor, 64), C Bell, J Robinson (capt); L Thomas, S Martens; L Faure (Stewart, 78), A Titterrell, B Stewart (B Evans, h-t), C Jones, D Schofield, N Bonner-Evans (C Day, 45), J M Fernandez Lobbe, S Chabal.

Referee: A Rowden (Berkshire).