Haag leaves Sale on the slippery slope

Whatever problems Sale may have off the field, they are always a feisty side on it and with Bath still in the title race this was always likely to be a hard-fought encounter. Throw poor conditions, plus a wet and slippery ball into the equation and errors were a foregone conclusion.

Sadly for the game, most of them were by the referee, Geraint Ashton Jones. Inconsistent in giving off-side throughout, he contrived to make what was already a scrappy game even worse. But his biggest errors were in the first half when he showed three players the yellow card.

He sent the Sharks outside-half Nicky Little to the bin in the 14th minute for deliberate off-side when in fact he should have punished either Pete Anglesea or Rob Appleyard. And in the 29th minute he correctly identified Victor Ubogu as a culprit in a big fight but managed to ignore numerous better qualified pugilists from the Sharks team to give Alex Sanderson a 10-minute break.

Frustrating for the players and the crowd as it was, Bath will be more than satisfied that they have put more pressure on title rivals Northampton and Leicester, both of whom they still have to meet.

But they will have to play better than this if they are to upset those two. Bath did try and play the free-flowing game that has been so effective in recent victories but Sale defended well and a wet pitch hindered the home side's handling and running.

Give them a hard pitch and the sun on their backs and they can beat anybody. A muddy scrap, though, reduces the effectiveness of their backs. No doubt the players and fans will be keeping a close watch on the weather forecasts during the next few weeks.

Two tries by Martin Haag at the beginning and end of the second half, alongside a Kevin Maggs score in the first half, secured the home victory and cheered the crowd, particularly as Haag's first score gave a glimpse of Bath at their best.

The forwards had driven Sale back and then Dan Lyle had punched over the gain line to about five metres from goal. As the Sharks scrambled back in defence, the ball was released quickly to Mike Catt, who floated a perfect mis-pass out to Haag, lurking with intent on the left wing.

Successfully converted, Bath now enjoyed a 17-point advantage, which was extended by a Jon Preston penalty before Haag added his second score in the last minute. With points difference possibly an important factor in the Bedford-Sale relegation dogfight, it was a pity for the Sharks that they conceded those seven points at the very end.

In fact they should have taken the lead in the first half when the forwards set up and then squandered a two-man overlap. They caught and drove a line-out infield to just under the posts, and importantly sucked into the maul most of the Bath defence. But they tried one time too many to drive the ball over the line and by the time it was spun out to the backs, Bath had reorganised out wide.

Little did level the scores as Bath strayed off-side and kicked another penalty in the 36th minute, but from then on the visitors were scoreless and Bath increasingly dominated the game. The season is still alive for both these teams but, as this game demonstrated, only at opposite ends of the Premiership.

Bath: M Perry; I Balshaw, K Maggs, M Tindall (P De Glanville 59), A Adebayo; M Catt (S Berne 77), J Preston (G Cooper 77); V Ubogu, M Regan (L Mears 71), J Mallett (C Horsman 68), M Haag, S Borthwick, G Thomas, D Lyle, B Clarke (capt).

Sale: J Mallinder; M Moore (P Knight 68), J Baxendell (capt), S Davidson, S Hanley; N Little, C Turvey; P Smith (P Winsanley 59), J Clark, D Theron (D Bell 59), G Manson-Bishop (A Whittle 74), M Tinnock (D Baldwin 50), A Sanderson, P Anglesea, R Appleyard.

Referee: G Ashton Jones (Royal Navy).