Bath 36 Sale 14: Prop idol Stevens has the X-factor for Bath

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The Independent Online

It was a good day for the man who stepped into Brian Ashton's shoes. Sitting in the sunshine by the banks of the Avon, he could bask in the glow of a performance that was brimming with the very best of the English game – a masterclass of backs and forwards working together. Yes, it was a day of considerable satisfaction for Steve Meehan, the Australian Ashton brought to Bath as backs coach and who replaced him as head coach when England called. It was not a bad day, either, for the man who stepped on Brian Ashton's toes.

On a recce at The Rec, the England manager, Martin Johnson, saw Meehan's men playing a game that would be a dream for England on the road to the 2011 World Cup. At times, when Matt Stevens was speeding along and making his deft offloads (which was very often), you had to blink to check that the 19st 4lb tight-head prop had No 3 on his back, not No 13.

As Meehan said: "Matt's playing against one of the best loose-heads in the world [Andrew Sheridan] and he comes out of something like that, which is hard work, and he's carrying the ball with speed; he's hitting the lines; he's breaking the defensive line. He's got great leg drive in the contact. He can slip a pass. Defensively, he's sound. His line-out work is good." Ah, but as John Cleese once enquired of the Romans, apart from that, what has he ever done for us? Ah, yes, the boy can sing a bit too.

At 25, the Celebrity X Factor runner-up is sure to play a pivotal role in Johnson's England team. In the meantime, he happens to be the brightest of several stars in a Bath side who have been moulded into potential prize-winning material since Meehan's arrival from Stade Français.

This beating of Sale took them through to a European Challenge Cup final against Worcester at Kingsholm on 25 May, when the club's 10-year wait for silverware will surely come to an end. On this evidence, the Premiership trophy could well be theirs too.

The breadth of Bath's talents was evident in all of their scores: from a brilliant charge-down by Michael Claassens in the third minute to a deft kick by his fellow Springbok half-back, Butch James, that put in Matt Banahan in the left corner in the 66th minute. In between, Claassens and James set up the try of the match for Danny Grewcock – a 35-year-old veteran in vintage form in a positively purring Bath machine.

Bath: Tries Claassens, Lipman, Grewcock, Higgins, Banahan; Conversions Barkley 4; Penalty Barkley. Sale: Try Mayor; Penalties McAlister, Hodgson; Drop goal Hodgson.

Bath: N Abendanon (S Berne, 76); A Higgins, A Crockett (T Cheeseman, 67), O Barkley, M Banahan; B James, M Claassens (M Baxter, 76); D Barnes, L Mears (P Dixon, 67), M Stevens (D Bell, 67), S Borthwick (capt), D Grewcock (P Short, 67), J Faamatuainu, M Lipman, C Goodman (I Feaunati, 51).

Sale: B Foden; C Mayor, C Bell (J Laharrague, 18), L McAlister, O Ripol (W Cliff, 46); C Hodgson (B Cockbain, 67), R Wigglesworth; A Sheridan (L Faure, 43), S Bruno (N Briggs, 55), S Turner (E Roberts, 51), I Fernandez Lobbe (capt; M Hills, 48), D Schofield, S Cox, C Jones, JM Fernandez-Lobbe.

Referee: C Berdos (France).

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