Bath v Sale Sharks: Five takeaways from Premiership semi-final as ‘unsung heroes’ impress in front of England boss Steve Borthwick

James While
Bath back-row Ted Hill scoring against Sale Sharks.

Bath back-row Ted Hill scoring against Sale Sharks.

Following a 31-23 win for Bath over Sale Sharks in the Premiership semi-final, here’s our five takeaways from a thrilling clash at the Recreation Ground.

The top line

The Premiership delivered yet another thriller of a semi-final in the sunshine at the Rec as Bath edged out a superbly committed display from Sale Sharks to move into the final.

It took right until the last 10 minutes of the game when Niall Annett went over courtesy of a huge driving maul for Bath to get anything like the margin they wished as Sale played a magnificently intelligent game of strategy and field position delivered in style by the brilliant George Ford at 10.

Bath’s three tries came courtesy of Ted Hill, Beno Obano and Annett, with Sale also matching that tally as Ben Curry, Tommy Taylor and the outstanding Tom O’Flaherty all crossed the whitewash.

It came down to discipline in the end, and with Obano gaining real scrum dominance in the second half, the opportunities that created were enough to give Finn Russell the shots at goal he needed to make the scoreboard difference to take the match.

Unsung heroes

Amongst the galaxy of rugby stars on the pitch today, it was the unsung heroes that really impacted the course of this incredibly tight match. For Sale, the lesser Wiese brother, Cobus, was absolutely immense in every aspect of his play; he was his team’s top carrier with 14, supremely abrasive around the contact area and hitting 18 tackles in a memorable display of classic South African locking work.

Behind Wiese, Joe Carpenter was an absolute rock and one of the key reasons Bath struggled for both effective exits and for the territorial dominance that they simply couldn’t get.

In the black, blue and white, Matt Gallagher, Montpellier-bound at the end of this season, matched Carpenter for every catch and was equally as effective in defence, if not quite in clearing distance, and Ben Spencer, a man that England seem unable to embrace, once again put in an immense performance of control and vision, even if he didn’t get the protection and reward at the base from Luke Pearce that perhaps he deserved.

Classy Ben Spencer and Finn Russell take Bath into Premiership final after thrilling victory over Sale Sharks

It was perhaps inevitable that it was an unsung hero, Bath’s bench hooker Annett, who sealed the hard-fought win for his team with a brilliant 13-man maul that almost demolished the Rec and sent his side into a well-deserved Premiership final.

And lastly, another member of that Bath back three, the man they call ‘Horse’, Will Muir, who put in a remarkable display in defence and carry back, claiming the player of the match award as he also put a marker down to the watching England selectors.

Territorial battle

Sale’s ability to play rugby in areas that would hurt their hosts was the reason that this match stayed so close right up until the end.

For 60 minutes of the game, Sale bossed territory, courtesy of an absolutely magnificent display of game control from Ford at 10, who eclipsed his opposite number Russell in a worthy but ultimately losing cause.

Whatever they did, Bath simply couldn’t play rugby in the areas of the pitch that they wanted to, as time and time again Ford’s vision sent the hosts back into their own half. However, without Manu Tuilagi they simply lacked that straight line cutting edge to get through a well-coached Bath primary defence.

But in times like this it’s red zone efficiency that wins the close knockout games and to that end, Bath were far superior, able to use a combination of the skill of Hill and the speed of thought of Russell to get around O’Flaherty for the Bath first try.

And once again, it was the individual close quarter power of Obano that grabbed Bath’s second, in only their second foray into Bath’s red zone.

Johann van Graan may well be disappointed with how his team exited and controlled territory, but in terms of individualism and explosive power, his team held all the aces, and that, together with edging the closely fought aerial battle, is why Bath ultimately came out on top in yet another thriller.

England hopefuls

For the watching England coaches Steve Borthwick and Tom Harrison, they had a lot of positives to take out of Saturday’s encounter.

Both looseheads, Bevan Rodd and Obano, had their moments. For Obano it was moments of explosion, including crossing for Bath’s second try from close range after an exquisite 50/22 from Gallagher. Obano is always a man for that big hit or carry and his talent is obvious, but in this match he brought a ferocity to the scrummage that was much needed for the hosts. However, Rodd’s game was absolutely relentless on both sides of the ball in a much more understated yet equally effective manner. He dealt with the huge power of Thomas du Toit with technique and intellect, and his work around the short carry and pillar defence was a real feature of the Sale gainline work.

Elsewhere, Hill had a big match in attack, whilst in defence both Charlie Ewels and Sam Underhill shone, nailing double figures a piece in the tackle count.

With Ben Curry shining in close quarter work, nipping over for a crucial maul try to open Sale’s account, and Carpenter outstanding in the aerial battle, topping the charts for defenders beaten with eight, there was a lot to unpack for the observing Borthwick. On today’s showing, a number of players, notably Rodd and Obano, have done their summer tour chances no harm whatsoever. And, to add a cherry on top, Tom Curry’s return continued in abrasive fashion, with one hit on Josh Bayliss almost shattering the Bath man in two as the England flank brought real impact to proceedings.

The final everyone wanted

Next weekend, Bath will meet Saints in the Premiership final that every neutral wanted to see.

It’ll be a feast of running and attacking rugby from two brilliantly coached and expansive teams. At the heart of Bath’s resurgence is their wonderful family culture, one led and inspired by the leadership of their head of rugby Van Graan.

Alex Sanderson praised Bath, saying post-game that despite the first-half territory and the closeness of the aerial battle, that Sale simply didn’t quite have the cutting edge in their attack that they needed: “Who wouldn’t miss a Manu Tuilagi?” he quipped.

“It feels like our inability to control that middle third of park through losing our discipline in contact and the aerial battle allowed them back into our 22 repeatedly and you can only soak up that pressure for so long until you concede points which we did. Bath were consistent through the game in terms of their collisions and in the air.

“We felt at times we had the winning of the game and these big games turn on very small hinges, a couple of hits and a couple of penalties. But as my Dad said, hindsight is tuppence a pound in the Arndale Centre in Manchester and I am really proud of the way that the boys fronted up.

“Next week will be an immense final and I take my hat off to the two sides in the Prem that have the most firepower – that says everything about the way this season has gone and good luck to them both.”

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