Gap to big guns displayed
Ignore the fact Bath Rugby are up to sixth in the Premiership table. If any game showed they belong in the battle of the bottom-feeders rather than the tank with the big fish, this was it. The Sharks didn’t live up to their moniker either. They too are more at home in the ridiculously tight battle between mid-table and the relegation spot than any loftier rivalries. A match which threatened to be a 0-0 bore sparked into life in the second half at least, when Sharks No8 Jean-luc du Preez scored and his brother Rob converted. As the clock ticked down and the rain continued to fall, Bath needed a spark from somewhere to get anything out of the contest and it came from Cooper Vuna off the bench. James Wilson found him with a lovely miss-pass, he stepped Denny Solomona a treat, breezed past Sam James and had the awareness to chip in-field to the screaming Joe Cokanasiga to finish. Fellow replacement Wilson coolly slotted the extras to deliver two points which somehow saw Bath leap up from tenth in the table. The supporters who braved the Winter rain were not happy with the performance though, and rightly so. Despite having 66 per cent possession, 69 per cent territory and the edge in the scrums, the hosts didn’t score a single point until the 73rd minute. The wet weather did make play difficult, but Bath’s attack was still predictable, pedestrian and ponderous. One-out, round-the-corner rugby which the Sharks’ tacklers lapped up with double hits. They knocked carriers back, slowed down ball and even when there was a sniff of a more expansive opportunity Kahn Fotuali’i – making his first start of an injuryhit season – lacked the urgency to deliver it. Outside him there were static carriers again, little creativity and, other than the driving mauls, the visitors didn’t have much trouble in keeping the hosts at bay. Freddie Burns put in a couple of good tactical kicks but, overall, Bath rarely caused the visitors problems in that department. Burns had a long-range shot at goal early on but dragged it wide. Rob du Preez really should have punished a Francois Louw infringement but shanked his kick. Bath picked up plenty of penalties – mostly from scrums – but rather than have a shot at goal from out wide to at least take the lead, they went for more set-piece attacks. Sharks continued to infringe, Bath kept hammering away, but after about 15 phases of closerange carries a poor Fotuali’i pass was scooped up by the Sharks. But for an unfavourable bounce, Cokanasiga would have latched on to a neat crossfield punt from Jackson Willison and scored. Solomona came even closer when a kick over the top caught Cokanasiga by surprise, his opposite man outpaced him and gathered the ball superbly, only to lose control of it as he was tackled by Cokanasiga and slid over the line. Scoreless at the break, Bath needed to fire into the second half but it was the Sharks who had the bite. The hosts fell off tackles, conceded penalties and within minutes they were defending their line. That was when Jean-luc du Preez evaded Sam Underhill to put his side in front. The Underhill-louw axis had some benefits. They were a nuisance when the possession-starved Sharks did get some ball, but neither offered a great deal of threat going forward and Zach Mercer – seemingly hampered by a strapped – knee, was well shackled by the red wall in front of him. After Burns had struggled to get the backline on the front foot, Wilson added some spark late on, but he too missed a long-range, central penalty which could have proved the difference. Ruaridh Mcconnochie equipped himself well on his first start at fullback and Willison had a good allround game. A draw ended up a decent result for Sale and takes them off the bottom of the table. For Bath’s longterm ambitions of climbing the table it wasn’t enough. European champions Leinster – the next visitors to the Rec who have been demolishing Welsh provinces for fun with their second string – will not be quaking in their collective boots.