A generous man might argue that Sale deserved their highly significant victory at the Recreation Ground tonight, basing his opinion on the control they exerted in a fine first-half performance.
An honest man, on the other hand, will wonder how, in the name of all that is holy, Bath were denied a penalty try during the course of an epic siege that dominated the final quarter. Dean Richards, the referee, must be the first official in rugby history to penalise a retreating front row half a dozen times and not head for the posts.
Bath finally scored the close-range try they felt they were owed, through the hooker Ross Batty six minutes from time, but he was driven over wide out and with the newly-capped England outside-half George Ford sending the all-important conversion wide – he was also off target with two subsequent drop-goal attempts – they came up short. Sale are now very much in the mix for a semi-final spot. Bath? They are beginning to crack at the worst possible moment.
The northerners headed for the banks of the Avon with far more optimism than seemed likely at the start of the season, when precious few members of the rugby cognoscenti saw them as top-six material, let alone candidates for a play-off place. Yet Steve Diamond, hardly noted for his glass-half-empty view of life, had not seemed entirely sure that his players would show the best of themselves on this occasion, suggesting that there might be a touch of “altitude sickness” about a team occupying an unexpectedly elevated rung on the league ladder.
When the visitors suffered a double whammy on the injury front before kick-off – the long-serving England wing Mark Cueto was forced to withdraw with a calf problem; the All Black flanker Daniel Braid, cried off with a dead leg – Diamond must have felt even more uncertain about things. But as the first half unfolded, there was no suggestion that Sale were operating at anything other than full tilt.
Bath were missing a very decent player of their own in the shape of the Springbok loose forward Francois Louw. Early evidence suggested that the West Countrymen were missing their star-quality back-rower rather more than Sale were missing theirs, for Bath could barely lay a hand on the ball.
Both sides conceded super-soft penalties in the first 18 minutes. Danny Cipriani, an England outside-half of yore desperately hoping that his international future is not wholly behind him, was kicking sweetly out of hand and it was no surprise when he nailed his opportunity to set the scoreboard moving. Ford, the youngster currently to be found in the position Cipriani craves, was equally accurate with his early shot, but with the Sale tight forwards finding some joy at the initial set-pieces – rather ironic, given the way things turned out – it was the elder of the two outside-halves who prospered with a brace of three-pointers either side of the 20-minute mark.
If ever Bath needed a spark – they were unnervingly flat up front and more than a little butterfingered behind – it was now, and the full-back Nick Abendanon marked his 200th senior appearance by providing it. He alone seemed capable of testing Sam Tuitupou and Jonny Leota, the two sheet-iron tacklers in the Sale midfield, and he added the odd raking touch-finder for good measure. Largely thanks to him, Ford was able to cut the deficit with a penalty on 32 minutes. Unfortunately for the 20-year-old playmaker, a chance to square things up went begging shortly before the interval.
When Cipriani slotted his fourth penalty six minutes into the second period and Ford missed again, Sale were hugely encouraged. But with their front row tiring at a rate of knots, Bath turned things around at scrum time and set up camp in the red zone, embarking on that long and deeply controversial set-piece siege. It was not until Batty scored that the visitors escaped their 22. Fortunately for them, there was precious little time left on the clock.
Scorers: Bath – Try: Batty. Penalties: Ford 2. Sale – Penalties: Cipriani 4.
Bath: N Abendanon; S Rokoduguni, O Devoto (G Henson 65), K Eastmond, A Watson (H Agulla 71); G Ford, P Stringer (M Young 48); P James (N Catt 58), R Batty, D Wilson (A Perenise 58), S Hooper (capt, D Day 61), D Attwood, M Garvey, G Mercer (C Fearns 53), L Houston.
Sale: T Arscott (Cobilas 67, A Buckley 77); T Brady, J Leota, S Tuitupou, R Miller; D Cipriani (N Macleod 70), D Peel (W Cliff 70); E Lewis Roberts (R Harrison 64), M Jones, V Cobilas (H Thomas 64), A Ostrikov (M Easter 70), J Mills, M Paterson, D Seymour (capt), J Gaskell.
Referee: D Richards (Berkshire).