Bath 36 Sale 14: Stevens leads all-singing, all-dancing Bath into final

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The Independent Online

It is 10 years since Andy Nicol collected the most recent piece of silverware on display at The Rec, the Heineken Cup won courtesy of Jon Callard's 19-point haul against Brive at the Stade Lescure in Bordeaux. The suppliers of Brasso and Dura-Glit in these parts might be back in business. There was a glint of trophy-winning promise by the banks of the Avon yesterday as Bath produced a performance of attacking sparkle. The Challenge Cup might be the Uefa Cup of European rugby but Bath are only too happy to be in the final: they will play Worcester on Sunday 25 May at Kingsholm.

Asked about the explosive fusion of his backs and forwards yesterday, Steve Meehan, Bath's director of rugby, said: "When you see it happen, the rewards for the supporters to sit in this fine weather in the most beautiful surroundings of a rugby ground in the world... it's an absolute joy." Yes, but perhaps not quite as joyful as parading a pot in front of a Shed packed with fans in blue, black and white.

Surprisingly, the Recreation Ground was a little way shy of capacity yesterday. But Martin Johnson was there, in his new role as el supremo of English rugby and with the forwards coach, John Wells, and scrummage coach, Graham Rowntree, in tow. They must have been impressed as Bath's home contingent made cases for places in the tour party to New Zealand – not least Matt Stevens, who brought more than a touch of the X-factor to his dynamic play at tight-head prop, and Michael Lipman, the ubiquitous openside flanker.

It was breathless stuff from the start, Sale's Charlie Hodgson landing a second-minute drop goal before dropping his side in it a minute later when Michael Claassens, Bath's scrum-half, charged down his clearance and scampered through for the opening try. The second followed soon after, Stevens making a huge dent before Lipman darted over on the right.

Sale needed a highly questionable score to claw their way into fleeting contention – the wing Chris Mayor touching down in the left corner when Hodgson punted a quick penalty to him as the Bath captain, Steve Borthwick, addressed his players at the behest of Christophe Berdos, the French referee. A long-range penalty by Luke McAlister cut Bath's lead to 17-14, but then Danny Grewcock plunged over on the left and Meehan's men were 24-14 up with 23 minutes gone.

There followed a 35-minute hiatus on the points-scoring front before McAlister spilled the ball in midfield and the wing Andrew Higgins outpaced Hodgson and Will Cliff to score try number four for Bath. Number five was finished in the left corner by the other wing, Matt Banahan, after a deft kick by the outstanding South African outside-half, Butch James.

"That is the best execution of a game plan I've seen from this team in my two years here," Meehan said, with a broad smile. "We were right on the money."

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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