The lights may be going out on the EDF Energy Cup as we know it as event organisers look to revamp the competition for next season, yet Bath Rugby re-ignited their Cup campaign with a 21-24 victory in a stirring encounter at Edgeley Park.
Fielding a team with more experience than that which faced Leicester at The Rec, Bath arrived in Stockport in purposeful mood, determined to record a first victory at the ground in over a year. However, the visitors made a far from perfect start, as the Sharks' Charlie Hodgson proved his worth with the boot, kicking two penalties within the first eleven minutes to give his side an early six-point lead.
Bath were beaten 19-15 in their opening EDF Energy Cup fixture against the Tigers at The Rec and it looked as though it would be two fruitless matches in a row in the competition as Sale continued to dominate the contact area, preventing the west country side from clawing their way back into the game.
Despite the best efforts of Jack Cuthber, in for the rested Butch James, and League convert Shontayne Hape, Sale continued to dominate the match. Whenever Bath did secure good field position, they were turned over and although good interplay between Tom Cheeseman, Jack Cuthbert and Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu took Bath within reach, the Sharks regained possession and a kick from Hodgson gave Chris Bell an opening to fly up the wing and cross the line for the opening try. Hodgson's successful conversion catapulted Sharks into a 13 - 0 lead.
However, with the clock ticking rapidly towards the end of the first half, Bath were determined not to leave the pitch without winning some points of their own and after a fracas midfield, which resulted in the sin-binning of Brent Cockbain, fullback Cuthbert booted the ball into touch in the top left hand corner. The men in black, white and blue won the ensuing line out and lock Stuart Hooper forced over the line for five points. Cuthbert kicked the conversion square between the sticks just before the whistle, reducing the deficit to six points with a half-time score of 13-7 to Sale.
Bath re-entered the fray with no changes and determined to push on from their opening score. After 48 minutes and a number of frustrated skirmishes, the visitors were awarded a penalty kick after a Sale infringement at the tackle. Cuthbert continued his accurate kicking and took Bath to within three points of the leaders. However, two minutes later the score was cancelled out as Hodgson kicked another three points to give the Sharks a 16-10 lead after 50 minutes.
Six points down, Bath did not have to wait long before they bombarded into the lead as Hape and Michael Stephenson crossed the line within five minutes of each other. Hape made his debut five-pointer following a combined effort between Josh Ovens, Scott Bemand and Fuimaono-Sapolu and Stephenson made the most of an interception by Bath captain, Lipman. With Cuthbert successfully kicking both conversions, the visitors rattled into a deserving 16-24 lead.
Sale threatened to grab back the lead and whilst Cuthbert and Hape managed to fend off a sequence of charges from Andy Tuilagi and Bell, the defenders could not hold them at bay for long and Bell managed to benefit from some good team play from the Sharks and reward them with a try with seven minutes left on the clock. Hodgson missed the conversion and Sale sat tentatively on the heels of Bath - three points behind.
The final minutes were nail-biting after a burst up-field from Hodgson on the wing looked like a certain try, but a good chase and tackle from winger Rhys Crane stopped him just feet away from the try line. Although the Sharks continued to put in fierce attempts for the five points which would offer them the victory, Bath refused to relent and as the final whistle blew, Bath remained the winners with a final score of 21-24.