Bath Rugby moved up a gear in late April sunshine to cruise into the European Challenge Cup Final by defeating Sale Sharks 36-14 at the Recreation Ground.
The opening minutes provided a Jekyll and Hyde moment for Sale fly-half Charlie Hodgson as he first hit a successful drop goal from a difficult angle and then gifted the home side a try two minutes later when his defensive clearance was knocked down by an alert Michael Claassens, who followed up the loose ball to score Bath's opening try. Olly Barkley's conversion made it 7-3.
Barkley then hit a penalty in the 7th minute before a good passage of play through several quick phases resulted in flanker Michael Lipman scoring in the right hand corner. Barkley hit the conversion.
Hodgson pulled three points back for Sale with a penalty, then in the 16th minute Sale scored a controversial try. With Sale being awarded a penalty near the Bath try line, it seemed as if the referee had told Bath captain Steve Borthwick to talk to his players about the previous infringement. With Bath grouped together deep in discussion, Hodgson hit the ball high into the left hand corner for Chris Mayor to collect the ball and score. The try was awarded but Hodgson missed the conversion.
Sale continued their fight back and in the 20th minute, Luke McAlister hit a long range penalty to close the home side lead to only three points with Bath 17-14 ahead.
Not for the first time in the match, Bath utilised the kicking of Butch James to target the height and power of winner Matt Banahan. A kick to the corner in the 22nd minute saw Banahan take the ball, go to ground and Bath then moved the ball quickly through hands to reach the Sale try line. James then popped a pass out of a tackle to Danny Grewcock who scored. Barkley converted.
In the dying minutes of the half, both sides had chances, Bath through Barkley an Banahan and then Sale through a McAlister break. However neither side scored. Bath went into the break 24-14 up.
Early in the second half, Bath pressure was nearly turned against them as Sale kicked ahead to try and launch a counter-attack. However good covering from fullback Nick Abendanon prevented any damage being done.
Bath's harrying and pressing of Sale when ball was not in hand, paid off for the second time of the afternoon, this time after Luke McAlister dropped a pass. Lipman quickly moved in to kick the ball ahead and winger Andrew Higgins won the foot race to score. Barkley hit yet another successful conversion.
In the 64th minute, another powerful run by Higgins gained considerable ground for the home side. After recycled ball, fly-half James put in a lovely grubber kick to the corner for Matt Banahan to score. Barkley missed a kick at goal for the first time in the game.
Bath then nearly added to their try tally four minutes later. A two man overlap was caused after Zak Feaunati was brought down in front of the posts. However the resulting pass could not be taken by replacement hooker Pieter Dixon.
For the last ten minutes Sale kept the ball in hand well but the resulting pressure did not yield the visitors any points. Bath will now play in their second successive European Challenge Cup final when they take on Worcester Warriors at Kingsholm in late May.
Bath: Abendanon (Berne, 75), Higgins, Crockett (Cheeseman, 66), Barkley, Banahan, James, Claassens (Baxter 75); Barnes, Mears (Dixon, 66), Stevens (Bell, 66), Borthwick (c), Grewcock (Short, 66), Faamatuainu, Lipman, Goodman (Feaunati, 50).