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Bath set up Premiership final with Northampton by seeing off Sale
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Bath set up Premiership final with Northampton by seeing off Sale

Bath are into the Premiership final for the first time in nine years but they are not a team who give their supporters an easy ride. At times it was Sale who looked the side most likely to meet Northampton at Twickenham next Saturday, only for a 74th-minute try from Niall Annett and 16 points from the boot of Finn Russell to keep Bath on track for the promised land.

Maybe it was the nerves associated with such a big occasion but not until the closing couple of minutes could home fans remotely relax. It is 28 years since their favourites were last crowned champions of England and the huge outpouring of joy at the final whistle showed exactly what this result meant to everyone connected with the club.

Emotions were certainly running high in the main stand, where there was a post-match altercation between a fan and Sale’s non-playing England international Jonny Hill, which ended with a male spectator receiving a cut to the top of his eye and having his sunglasses broken.

Sale said they would “work with Bath to complete an investigation into the incident”, with their director of rugby, Alex Sanderson, also awaiting further details. “Jonny is not the aggressive type and I will answer those questions when I know,” he said. “I can vouch for Jonny’s character, he is not an overly aggressive spiteful person.”

Out on the field, though, Sale could be proud of their efforts, not just here but in recent weeks. They have been confounding expectations for a while and, from 18-5 down, almost added another classic ambush to their growing collection before Annett’s score dissolved the growing tension.

“We felt at times we had the winning of the game,” said Sanderson, bemoaning his side’s inability to control the match in the middle third of the field. “These big games turn on very small hinges: a couple of hits and a couple of penalties.”

Bath have certainly looked more fluent this season and will need a lower error count to wrongfoot Northampton. Their kicking game, though, remains a crucial weapon and their early dominance was rewarded when Ted Hill collected a Ben Spencer chip to score in the right corner after the tall flanker and Russell had made good ground in the buildup.

Ben Curry shows his frustration after Sale’s near missView image in fullscreen

Some respite materialised in the form of a charge-down and a subsequent soft penalty against Bath that gave Sale the opportunity to kick to the corner and set up a driving maul from which Ben Curry secured his side’s first points of the afternoon and required Bath to take a fresh guard.

They duly did so, Will Muir firing in a low 50-22 past George Ford and Beno Obano claiming his side’s second try at the bottom of another close-range forward rumble. When a reversed penalty for head-on-head contact against Sam Dugdale allowed Russell to extend the lead to 18-5, the warning signs already seemed to be flashing.

The Sharks’ maul, though, was enjoying some joy and Bath again had no answer as the visitors drove left and powered over their hooker, Tommy Taylor. Even without several tight forwards, including Hyron Andrews who failed a late fitness test, Sale were clearly not in the mood to lie down meekly.

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A nice conversion and a further penalty from Ford duly dragged the Sharks back to 18-15 down at the interval, putting the ball back in their opponents’ court. When the two teams met here in the later stages of the regular season it was a final-quarter surge from Bath that secured a 42-24 win after the scores had been tied at 24-24 with 17 minutes remaining.

History pretty much ended up repeating itself, though Sale did go back in front in the 52nd minute when, after a fizzing Russell pass went to ground, an immediate counterattack was launched from around the halfway line and Tom O’Flaherty gathered Joe Carpenter’s chip to score in the right corner.

Would there be another twist? Of course. By now, one or two key Sale scrummagers had been replaced and with the referee, Luke Pearce, starting to reward Bath once more, Russell landed a fine angled penalty from 45 metres to put the hosts back in front.

A long range drop goal attempt from the Scotland fly-half narrowly missed its target but Annett’s late maul score ensured it mattered not. Bath, at long last, are back where they want to be.

Source: theguardian.com