It was not a thing of beauty – in fact, it was just about as pug-ugly as it is possible to imagine – but given their troubles of late, Bath would happily have settled for any kind of victory before kick-off. Stone-cold certainties for a top four Premiership finish only a few short weeks ago, recent surges by Exeter and Wasps had sent them sliding down the table and out of the play-off positions. Now, they are back up to second, if only for a few hours.
Tom Homer, the big-kicking full-back recently recruited from London Irish, was the man who did the necessary, although his marksmanship was not always convincing. Four penalties, two of them resulting from dominant scrummaging by the Bath tight forwards, were enough to do for the northerners, who brought little to the party beyond some naked aggression and a rich variety of technical transgressions, all of which were spotted by the long-suffering Test referee Wayne Barnes and dealt with appropriately.
Bath’s recent problems – three straight league defeats to go with another in the Anglo-Welsh Cup – suggested they had chosen the worst possible moment in the season to forget how to win. They had certainly forgotten how to prevail without George Ford, away with England on Six Nations duty, pulling the strings for them at outside-half and Jonathan Joseph, his international colleague, ripping things up at centre. In their absence, the vibrant attacking rugby that raised the West Countrymen way above most of their rivals before Christmas had turned into something far less captivating.
In their desperation to rediscover the best of themselves, they came up with an inventive ploy last night. Ollie Devoto, Kyle Eastmond and Sam Burgess took the field wearing Nos 10, 12 and 13 respectively, but proceeded to perform roles rather different to those suggested by the digits on their backs. Burgess defended in the outside-half channel while Eastmond took on the more complex distributive responsibilities, with Devoto floating with artistic intent behind them.
Sadly, the reach of this ambition was not matched by the grasp. Despite claiming 73 per cent of the first-half possession, they had nothing to show for their dominance but a brace of penalties from Homer. In response, Danny Cipriani banged over a long-range goal of his own, although an earlier effort from the celebrity midfielder ended in hilarity when he hooked the ball like a novice golfer and landed flat on his posterior. His new nickname at the Rec? Danny Slipriani.
For all the patterns Bath tried to weave with ball in hand, the only genuine progress was made by two of the brute-force merchants up front: the young loose-head prop Nick Auterac, blessed with the kind of engine habitually found in a tank, and the gnarled No 8 Carl Fearns, who likes to put it about a bit – not least against his former employers. It was not until the strangely forgotten England wing Semesa Rokoduguni ran through his red-rose predecessor Mark Cueto and embarked on an exciting raid early in the second half that the capacity crowd found their collective voice.
It sparked a livelier spell from the home side and Homer nudged them further ahead with a third penalty. When the full-back, a little scratchy from the tee in the first half, warmed to his task by maximising a scrum penalty from a difficult right-sided position early in the final quarter, the home side finally had some breathing space.
Scorers: Bath – Penalties: Homer 4. Sale – Penalty – Cipriani.
Bath: T Homer (L Arscott 78); S Rokoduguni, S Burgess (M Banahan 58), K Eastmond, O Woodburn; O Devoto, C Cook (M Young 47); N Auterac (M Lahiff 65), R Webber (R Batty 54), H Thomas (K Palma-Newport 15), S Hooper (capt), D Day, M Garvey (G Mercer 69), F Louw, C Fearns (A Fa’osiliva 64).
Sale: M Haley; T Arscott, J Leota, S Tuitupou, M Cueto (T Brady 72); D Cipriani, C Cusiter (W Cliff 64); E Lewis-Roberts (R Harrison 59), T Taylor, V Cobilas, J Mills (J Beaumont 60), N Hines (Beaumont 1-7), D Braid (capt, T J Ioane 59), D Seymour, M Lund.
Referee: W Barnes (London).Reuse content