Bath beat Sharks in style

Well, he more than lived up to the billing, didn't he! Butch James's 40 minute cameo was remarkable not just for the variety and effectiveness of his distribution but also for its effect on the players around him.

Suddenly looking carefree rather than careworn, Bath Rugby turned in their most fluent performance for months, taking their cue from the World Cup winning fly-half to rip into Sale from the very first seconds of this LV= Cup-tie. Just 30 minutes later the match was all but over as a contest as Ryan Davis converted the fourth try to put Bath 28-7 ahead.

It was a special day too for right wing Michael Stephenson who scored three of the six tries. Davis kicked five conversions out of six, none of them easy.

James made a noble effort to play down his contribution afterwards, saying: It's a lot easier for me when everyone else wants to get their hands on the ball. I was happy with the way it went; it all went so smoothly. Even if you are out for a long time, you don't lose it, the mentality. It's like riding a bike.

James, who did not appear for the second half, added: I was quite keen for another 10 minutes but I was pretty tired."

Skills coach Brad Davis said: "Butch pulled the strings but it's too simple to say that one guy coming back made all the difference. We varied our focus of attack today, hit them wide and hit them narrow. They couldn't pinpoint where we were going to attack."

For someone who had not taken the field since 19 April last year when he damaged knee ligaments against Newcastle at Kingston Park, it was clear that James had no intention of feeling his way back into action. Nor did Nick Abendanon, making an equally spectacular return after six weeks out with a sprung shoulder joint.

The fullback was prominent in the early attacks and there was no break in play from the kick-off before he sent Michael Stephenson in at the corner after just 90 seconds.

Scott Bemand was lively at scrum-half and played a major part in the next try, first looping around Pieter Dixon to send Stephenson away down the wing and then taking a return pass to set up a ruck at which Sale were penalised. Bath opted for the scrum and James linked with Davis who found Matt Carraro on a good angle to stretch out and score by the posts with 10 minutes gone.

With no further interest in the competition since the defeat at Leicester the previous weekend, Bath could afford to spurn any kicks from penalties. So, opting for a line-out from the next penalty five minutes later, Dixon found Stuart Hooper with his throw and took up position at the back of a driving maul to touch down under a pile of bodies. Davis's conversion was on the mark again to increase the lead to 21-nil.

That finally stung Sale into a response and James had to move smartly to wrap up second row Dean Schofield from a quick tapped penalty within 10 metres of the Bath line. However, the fly-half was one of three players who reacted too slowly when No 8 Kristian Ormsby launched himself off the back of a five-metre scrum to force his way over the line, leaving teenage fly-half Mark Atkinson with a simple conversion after 23 minutes.

That was Ormsby's last significant contribution however as he left the field injured and Bath used their dominance of the scrum to turn up the pressure at the other end. James dipped into his bag of tricks to fire an inch-perfect kick across the right corner where Stephenson swooped on the loose ball to score. Davis, looking composed and confident, drilled the conversion from the touchline.

Half-time was also the opportunity to change the entire Bath front row, giving young props Nathan Catt and Aaron Jarvis valuable game time along with Lee Mears.
The half was just seven minutes old when Stephenson completed his hat-trick, latching on to Bemand's clever little grubber on the blindside. Davis made it five conversions out of five.

With changes from both sides, the game began to lose its shape and Bath their superiority, particularly after flanker Guy Mercer was yellow carded. Much of the half was spent in valuable defensive practice but Sale, fielding a number of inexperienced combinations, lacked the penetration or imagination that Bath had shown earlier in the game.

Eventually they broke out through Jonny Fa'amatuainu whose rampaging run was stopped illegally by Ben Cohen. That earned the former England wing a yellow card and Bath took advantage of the man advantage by sending Jack Cuthbert in at the corner. Davis's conversion was wide just about the only blemish on a performance that hinted of brighter things to come.

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