Bath Rugby 31-23 Sale Sharks: Bath set-up final date with Northampton Saints after epic semi-final

Bath Rugby held their nerve to beat Sale Sharks 31-22 in the play-off semi-final at the Recreation Ground on Saturday to book their place in the final at Twickenham next weekend against Northampton Saints.

Bath have completed a simply remarkable turnaround in just two short years. At the conclusion of the 2021/22 campaign, the illustrious club sat bottom of the Gallagher Premiership for the first time in their history. That summer Johann van Graan arrived from Munster to replace Stuart Hooper as the head of rugby operations and the rebuild, or train journey as the South African calls it, began..

READ MORE: Bath Rugby 31-23 Sale Sharks LIVE highlights and reaction from the Gallagher Premiership semi-final

Season one under van Graan saw the Blue, Black and White finish eighth, clinching Champions Cup rugby on the final day of the season with a swashbuckling win over Saracens. Season two saw Bath finish second in the table at the end of the regular season, with Sale Sharks coming to the Recreation Ground in Bath's first home semi-final since the 2014/15 season when the club last reached the final, nine long years ago.

But now silverware is just 80 minutes away after the Blue, Black and White matched Sale's physicality and intensity to win. Sale, eighth in the table two months ago, gave it everything and wiped out an 18-5 deficit to take the lead in the contest for the first time in the 52nd minute before two second-half Finn Russell penalties and a late Niall Annett try saw Bath home.

Flanker Ted Hill and prop Beno Obano also scored for Bath, with fly-half Finn Russell kicking 16 points from four penalties and two conversions. Sale also scored three tries – skipper Ben Curry, hooker Tommy Taylor and wing Tom O’Flaherty all crossed – with George Ford adding two penalties and a conversion.

But there was no fairy-tale return to action for Sale and England flanker Tom Curry, who featured for 33 minutes off the bench on his first appearance since the World Cup after undergoing major hip surgery.

Bath took a fourth-minute lead after wing Joe Cokanasiga was obstructed chasing a Ben Spencer kick, with Russell making no mistake from 25 metres out. It was a confident start by the home side, and they extended their advantage just eight minutes later following a move started and finished by former Worcester forward Hill.

His initial surge into Sale territory did enough damage for Russell to then make a half-break before Spencer’s chip into space was gathered by Hill for a superbly worked try.

Sale needed something from the opening quarter, and they delivered from a first meaningful visit to Bath’s 22 when Curry touched down after a powerful lineout drive.

Bath had been dominant until that point, but they quickly returned to the front-foot when wing Will Muir’s lengthy touchfinder gave them an imposing attacking platform.

And the Bath forwards did not disappoint, patiently going though phase-play before Obano claimed a try that Russell converted, making it 15-6.

Russell continued to move through his repertoire, booting a penalty from the halfway line, yet Sale struck again from a close-range lineout, with Taylor the latest beneficiary.

Ford converted from the touchline, and when he kicked a penalty shortly afterwards Sale were firmly back in contention, trailing by just three points at half-time.

A 40-metre penalty by Ford levelled things up early in the second period, and Tom Curry entered the fray immediately afterwards. Russell’ third successful penalty put Bath ahead again, yet Sale hit back immediately after an attack sparked by wing Tom Roebuck ended with O’Flaherty gathering Joe Carpenter’s kick and crossing wide out.

Sale were ahead for the first time, but another Russell edged Bath one pint in front with 14 minutes left as the tension began to crank up. Russell drifted a penalty chance narrowly wide eight minutes from time, but Bath had territorial control as they chased one more score to kill the game off.

And it duly arrived after a driven lineout proved too much for Sale’s defence, with Annett touching down and Russell converting, setting up a Twickenham showdown with Saints.

Bath Rugby: 15 Matt Gallagher, 14 Joe Cokanasiga, 13 Ollie Lawrence, 12 Cameron Redpath, 11 Will Muir, 10 Finn Russell, 9 Ben Spencer (c); 1 Beno Obano, 2 Tom Dunn, 3 Thomas du Toit, 4 Quinn Roux, 5 Charlie Ewels, 6 Ted Hill, 7 Sam Underhill, 8 Alfie Barbeary

Replacements: 16 Niall Annett, 17 Juan Schoeman, 18 Will Stuart, 19 Elliott Stooke, 20 Josh Bayliss, 21 Louis Schreuder, 22 Orlando Bailey, 23 Miles Reid

Sale Sharks: 15. Joe Carpenter, 14. Tom Roebuck, 13. Sam James, 12. Rob du Preez, 11. Tom O’Flaherty, 10. George Ford, 9. Gus Warr, 1. Bevan Rodd, 2. Tommy Taylor, 3. James Harper, 4. Cobus Wiese, 5. Ernst van Rhyn, 6. Ben Curry ©, 7. Sam Dugdale, 8. JL du Preez.

Replacements: 16. Agustin Creevy, 17. Si McIntyre, 18. WillGriff John, 19. Ben Bamber, 20.Tom Ellis, 21. Raffi Quirke, 22. Luke James, 23. Tom Curry.

Referee: Luke Pearce

Assistant Referees: Tom Foley & Sara Cox

TMO: Stuart Terheege