Sale steal a march on Bath: Rugby Union

Sale 11 Bath 5
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The Independent Online
Sale are beginning to enjoy the limelight, and well deserved is their belated appearance on centre stage. With their bold advance on Twickenham confirmed after Saturday's Pilkington Cup semi-final triumph against Harlequins, victory over Bath at a packed Heywood Road last night has probably ended the champions' hopes of retaining the title, and put Sale firmly on course for a place in next season's Heineken European Cup.

Without reproducing the free-running rugby which has marked their play this season, Sale had to draw deeply on all their defensive resources, especially in a scoreless second half when Bath were on top for long periods.

Defeat does not mean that Bath are out of the title race altogether, but with five league losses, the danger now for the West Country club is to pull themselves together in time for Sunday's game at Wasps otherwise their participation in Europe come autumn could be in doubt.

Sale, with a notionally easier run-in than the other European hopefuls, were naturally elated after this latest success. "Bath put us under intense pressure," the Sale captain, Jim Mallinder, said. "Sure there were some tired legs out there after the Cup win, but the character of our side came through.

"If we had lost tonight I think our season would be over apart from the Cup. But Europe has enabled us to take our minds off Twickenham. We now have a twin focus."

Try as they did, Bath were never able to exploit Sale's inevitable weariness, and were a mass of indecision in midfield where only Jeremy Guscott posed a real threat and looked capable of prising open Sale's miserly defence.

Sale opened strongly with a smart try by Tom Beim in the corner, courtesy of Jos Baxendell's long pass, plus a penalty from the outside-half, Simon Mannix, to stride purposefully into an 8-0 lead.

With the benefit of a weekend's rest and heavyweight reinforcements in the shape of Federico Mendez, Dave Hilton and the tall Nathan Thomas when called on, the Bath pack, with Martin Haag at his most impressive, waxed stronger as the match wore on.

Yet Sale never buckled. True they conceded a try when Richard Webster was driven over, but thereafter the home defence held firm. Jonathan Callard and Mike Catt both narrowly missed with penalties that would have brought Bath closer.

Mannix's late penalty, which drifted tantalisingly wide of the target could have proved costly once Guscott galloped free. But, as they had throughout, Sale denied him.

Sale: Try Beim; Penalties Mannix 2. Bath: Try Webster.

Sale: J Mallinder; D Rees, C Yates, J Baxendell, T Beim; S Mannix, J O'Reilly; P Winstanley, S Diamond, M Driver, D Baldwin, J Fowler, N Ashurst (J Mitchell, 50), A Morris, D Erskine.

Bath: J Callard; J Sleightholme, J Guscott, P de Glanville (capt), A Adebayo; M Catt, A Nicol; K Yates, G Dawe (F Mendez, 56), J Mallett (D Hilton, 62), M Haag, N Redman, R Webster, A Robinson (N Thomas, 40), D Lyle.

Referee: J Pearson (Cleveland).

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