Sale secured top spot in the GUINNESS PREMIERSHIP’S regular season with an entertaining bonus-point victory over Bath at Edgeley Park. Charlie Hodgson inspired the victory with a near-flawless kicking display throughout and an impudent try midway through the second half.
But the Sharks needed tries in the final three minutes by Chris Mayor, Mark Cueto and Chris Jones – the final two superb length-of-the-field moves – to guarantee them a top-of-the-table finish and a home draw for the semi-final play-offs.
Bath played their part in a great spectacle in front of a capacity crowd, Chris Malone and James Hudson grabbing tries either side of the interval.
But perhaps due to their Heineken Cup exploits against Biarritz in France last week, they were torn apart by Sale in the final few moments and in the end were well beaten.
Bath adopted an attacking philosophy from the first whistle and it looked like paying dividends early on.
Encamped in the hosts’ half, a number of straightforward penalty kicks were turned down in favour of a bold bid for tries but Sale’s defence was obdurate.
The only time it was breached was when Olly Barkley’s deft kick into the in-goal area was pounced upon by Nick Adendanon but the debutant winger knocked on instead of grounding the ball.
The Sharks chose to take the points when they were offer any time they were in Bath’s half and two penalties, in the 14th and 17th minutes, by Hodgson put them 6-0 ahead.
The England fly-half booted a third on the half-hour to extend Sale’s lead but they were pegged back on the stroke of half-time through a piece of individual nonchalance by Malone.
The Australian fly-half, receiving a fine pass from substitute Nick Walshe, dribbled a neat kick in behind the Sale backline and ran onto it himself before scooping the ball up just ahead of covering defender Cueto and going over. Malone garnished his try with a simple conversion.
Hodgson knocked over his fourth penalty two minutes into the second half to make it 12-7 and Sale passed up two chances to register their first try of the night soon after.
Hodgson’s pass to the impressive Andy Titterrell, who collected the ball completely free on the left wing, was adjudged forward while Sebastian Chabal tried to be too cute when he had a three-on-one overlap, also on the left flank.
The Sharks, however, did not have to wait long for their opening touchdown and what a score it was.
Hodgson received a Sililo Martens pass and after feigning an inside lay-off to Elvis Seveali’i, he beat Malone with a bewildering side-step to sprint inside Alex Crockett and race over untouched. Hodgson added the extras with ease.
After Hodgson had missed a penalty attempt, Bath almost scored at the other end when Joe Maddock knocked on in the left corner following a clever Malone cross-field kick.
Maddock’s claims that he was taken out in the air by Seveali’i fell on deaf ears.
The south-westerners did grab their second try a few minutes later, lock Hudson diving over in the right corner after a long mis-pass by Malone.
But their faint hopes of hauling back Sale were ended when substitute Mayor glided through three grasping Bath tacklers to breeze over with three minutes to go.
Cueto and Jones added gloss to the scoreline when they finished off length-of the-field moves in fine style in the dying stages.