Centre Elvis Seveali´i and flanker Magnus Lund scored tries in a full-blown physical encounter, enabling Sale to stave off a third league defeat in the west country this season following losses against Gloucester and Bristol.
England fly-half Charlie Hodgson added three penalties and a conversion. Bath could not break down the Sale defence and had to rely on an Olly Barkley penalty hat-trick for their points.
Ashton, who officially took charge yesterday, last held the Bath reins nine years ago – and the former European champions have not won a domestic trophy since he masterminded a league and cup double in 1996. The Powergen Cup represents a realistic chance of silverware this term – Bath meet semi-final opponents Llanelli Scarlets in early March – but their latest league reversal leaves them more than a dozen points off a top-four title play-off place.
In contrast, Sale´s hopes of a Premiership and Heineken Cup double remain very much alive, after Bath became the latest side to experience their imposing all-round power. Bath, targeting a fifth successive victory in all competitions since late November, welcomed back fit-again French wing David Bory – while England prop David Flatman featured on the bench following an 18-month injury battle during which he has undergone four Achilles tendon operations.
Sale, having relinquished top spot to Wasps on New Year´s Eve, fielded 11 internationals – including a return for Samoan Seveali´i, who missed the Boxing Day victory over Northampton because of a calf muscle injury.
The Sharks went ahead inside a minute when Hodgson booted a short-range penalty, but Bath responded impressively through two Barkley strikes in four minutes before Danny Grewcock stole Sale ball just five metres from the home line to alleviate pressure. Referee Chris White had his hands full controlling the front-row battle, where England prop Andrew Sheridan and Bath tighthead Duncan Bell tore into each other – and with Grewcock leading the charge, Sale conceded a keenly-fought territorial battle.
Bath also shaded early possession, and it took an opportunist kick and chase from Sharks captain Jason Robinson to move Sale within sight of Bath´s 22. Bath negated revered Sharks number eight Sebastien Chabal´s threat by closing down his space and knocking him back in the contact area – a tactic which frustrated Sale.
Hodgson then missed an opportunity to level the game six minutes before half-time when he sent a 35-metre penalty sailing wide, the failed kick coming after Sharks scrum-half Sililo Martens had been forced off for treatment on a head wound. Hodgson sacrificed a kickable penalty as half-time approached, edging Sale further towards Bath´s line instead.
But the bold approach backfired as home flanker James Scaysbrook led a defensive break-out which left Sharks retreating at a rate of knots. The action was fast and furious, if littered with errors by both sides in the final attacking third, and Bath preserved their three-point advantage at the break. Martens, his head bandaged, returned for the second period – and it took Sale just four minutes to crack open Bath´s defence.
Hodgson´s half-break proved sufficient to disorientate the Bath defence, and Seveali´i sniped through on an inside angle – stepping through weak home tackling for a try which Hodgson converted. It was a soft score for Bath to concede, but Sale at last had momentum as they chased a ninth win of the league campaign.
Sheridan and Bell continued their private war, squaring up off the ball, yet there was a far more worrying sign for Sale when Hodgson went down hurt as Bath bombarded Sharks´ 22. A groggy Hodgson continued after receiving treatment.
But Bath continued exerting territorial dominance and they were rewarded with a third Barkley penalty on 56 minutes after Sharks flanker Jason White´s indiscipline was punished. Sale responded quickly and directly when Hodgson effortlessly slotted a 40-metre penalty – and Bath still had it all to do entering the final quarter, trailing 13-9. A punishing contest took its toll during the closing minutes, with Chabal, Bell and Bory all leaving the action early.
Bell´s departure sparked a rousing reception for his replacement Flatman. But Sale had the final word through Lund´s clincher two minutes from time and a 50-metre Hodgson penalty.