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Finn Russell’s stardust has Bath gunning for Premiership title

Finn Russell is tackled by Sam Dugdale
Finn Russell has brought a new dimension to Bath's play - PA/Zac Goodwin

Bath 42 Sale 24

With the Rec bathed in spring sunshine Bath showed a couple of qualities which left you with little doubt about their title credentials. Their attack looked as slick as any when it fired but more importantly they now appear to possess that crucial ability to dig a little deeper, to find a way to muscle past opponents when games are as tight and cagey as this one.

Bath did not wilt when tries by Tom Roebuck and Sam Dugdale kept Sale right in the contest during the second half. Instead, they rallied.

It is impossible to discuss the threat of Bath’s attack, adding another five tries here for their eighth try bonus point in 13 games, without focusing on Finn Russell. Scotland’s No 10 could not cut Ireland open but he has always felt like a transformative signing since his move from Racing 92 was announced.

“He is certainly a difference-maker,” Johann van Graan, Bath’s head coach, said while stressing how much Russell has invested himself into the group since arriving. “I can’t emphasise enough how much he has been part of the squad.”

Russell’s performance had a bit of everything, arguably peaking with a drop goal – the first in his career – off his wrong foot which squiggled its way over. He had touches in Bath’s first three tries that were subtle and exceptional. Joe Cokanasiga, named player of the match and often found here roving off his wing looking for work, seems an obvious beneficiary of Russell’s box of tricks.

An inside ball from Russell to Cokanasiga opened Sale up for Matt Gallagher’s opening try. That naturally put Sale on alert for the same tactic, so Russell shaped to go back inside during another attack to a supporting Cokanasiga run. Sale rushed up hard and fell for the Russell dummy, with the ball instead going back outside to Tom Dunn before Cokanasiga went over a couple of passes later.

Russell was in their heads. His flick-on pass to set up the break for Cokanasiga’s second was so subtle that if you blinked you probably missed it.

“I quite enjoy the challenge, and we got to him a couple of times today. But it’s the moment that you don’t,” Alex Sanderson, the Sale director of rugby, explained. “The moment when you take the show-and-go, as we did, the deception and the offload comes in.

“When you feel like you are in a really good spot defensively and then it’s like, ‘where has that come from?’ He has that ability, that X-factor to magic something out of nothing.”

That all being said, while Russell provides the stardust it cannot be stressed enough how complete Bath now feel as a side. There are now waves of powerful ball-carriers in this squad – looking at you, Ted Hill – who are thriving. The kicking game through Ben Spencer is firing.

And the best pass of the day arguably belonged to Will Muir, with an offload out the back for Ollie Lawrence, now sporting a bleach-blonde haircut post-Six Nations, to score Bath’s fifth and final try.

The Dunn try off a maul to secure a bonus point is where Bath now feel different to the sides of seasons past who would have crumbled. This time it was Bath who dominated, a scrum penalty won by Beno Obano, applying pressure to promising Sale youngster Asher Opoku-Fordjour, followed up by a maul penalty and then a maul try.

At that point the game was finely poised at 30-24, with Bath having seen off the patch when they were down to 14 after Lawrence’s yellow card for a high tackle on Rob du Preez. It felt like a statement of intent.

Sale pushed Bath, no question, and looked far better for the extended rest of the last few weeks than their previous, leggy performance away at Gloucester. Their attack with George Ford back at No 10 was much improved, firing out flat passes like the assist which led to a very nice finish by Manu Tuilagi.

Dugdale in particular was excellent, carrying hard and grafting defensively, and deserved his try after a brilliant tap tackle earlier on Lawrence.

It will hurt Sale that their defence and set-piece, their two staples last season, ultimately let them down.

Yet that was the difference. When the game was finely poised, Bath had the answers. And when you consider the lows they have been to in recent years, that is an enormous leap forward.

Match details

Scoring sequence: 5-0 Gallagher try, 7-0 Russell con, 7-3 Ford pen, 7-8 Tuilagi try, 7-10 Ford con, 12-10 Cokanasiga try, 14-10 Russell con, 14-15 Roebuck try, 14-17 Ford con, 17-17 Russell pen, 22-17 Cokanasiga try, 24-17 Russell con, 24-22 Dugdale try, 24-24 Ford con, 27-24 Russell pen, 30-24 Russell drop goal, 35-24 Dunn try, 37-24 Russell con, 42-24 Lawrence try.

Bath: M Gallagher (O Bailey 77); J Cokanasiga, O Lawrence, C Redpath, W Muir; F Russell, B Spencer (c, L Schreuder 77); B Obano (J Schoeman 68), T Dunn (H Faiva 77), T du Toit, Q Roux (E Stooke 60), C Ewels, T Hill, S Underhill (M Reid 72), A Barbeary (J Coetzee 40). Not used: A Griffin. Yellow card: Lawrence 56.
Sale Sharks: J Carpenter; T Roebuck, R du Preez (c), M Tuilagi (S James 77), A Reed (T O’Flaherty 58); G Ford, G Warr (R Quirke 50); B Rodd (S McIntyre 58), L Cowan-Dickie (T Taylor 54), J Harper (A Opoku-Fordjour 54), C Wiese (B Bamber 59), J Beaumont, E van Rhyn, S Dugdale, J du Preez. Not used: H Andrews.
Referee: A Leal
Attendance: 14,509

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