The opening stadium pyrotechnics gave way to a Manchester gloaming casting a murky hue over Danny Cipriani’s Bath debut as his side lost this opening encounter with a last-gasp penalty following a valiant comeback in the second half.
Sale Sharks dispelled some early worries for their coach Alex Sanderson’s difficult second album of a season and contended with the absence of Faf de Klerk with a performance of greater strength and composure.
Early adventure from the Bath backline was a signal of intent as wide early, wide often was the order the day from Stuart Hooper’s team. But for all the ease with which they sprayed the ball, the struggle was in tight as the gnarly Sale pack harried the ruck and dominated the scrum. The home side’s greater strength, particularly via Manu Tuilagi, rumbled through the centre of the park and Bath tackles, forcing the visitors to concede 10 penalties in the first half.
In a more favourable timeline, the partnership of Cipriani and Ben Spencer could have had 30 international caps together, instead the first outing showed glimpses of the possible before Spencer left the field injured midway through the first half, replaced by Ollie Fox.
This ended any hope the travelling fans had of witnessing the emergence of an exciting new axis for the season and the disappointment was closely followed on 22 minutes by the Bath defence drifting offside. The penalty allowed Rob Du Preez to open the match scoring from the tee.
Two tries – the first from Akker van der Merwe after an imperious lineout catch and drive, and the second a Byron McGuigan run-in – extended the lead. Bath’s first foray into the Sale 22 late in the half saw Simon Hammersley sent to the bin for a cynical foul under the posts. Cipriani opened his Bath account with the boot from the resulting penalty but it was small comfort as his side headed for the tunnel 17-3 down.
Perhaps due to a dressing-room rocket from Hooper, Bath had a better start to the second period – it could hardly get worse – with Cipriani slotting a long range penalty after some decent ruck work from Miles Reid.
The fly-half struggled to convert his next opportunity from a similar position before giving way to Orlando Bailey on 51 minutes. The Bath pack finally won some dominance up front which carved greater territory and a Max Ojomoh break saw substitute Juan Schoeman score after the referee took a second look at a grounding he initially called just short. The conversion from Bailey and a Du Preez penalty miss from 25 metres made it a four point game going into the final quarter.
As Bath scraped their way back into the game via a combination of a pack refusing to give in and a drop in intensity from the Sharks, the Sale defence’s discipline slipped and an early tackle by Ross Harrison in the Sale 22 gave Bailey another three points from the resulting penalty.
The game looked to be near settled on 70 minutes as Du Preez dived for the corner, but under minimal pressure from Will Muir the Sale fly-half dropped the ball over the line.
It was a huge miss in the context of the game as a Sam Underhill break following a long phase of possession on 75 minutes saw him ignore Semesa Rokoduguni outside him with the line begging before Cameron Neild spared the England flanker’s blushes; the Sale flanker was caught offside, allowing Bailey again to score from the tee and put his side ahead in the dying minutes.
But the romantic comeback was not to be as the final Sharks attack won a penalty in front of the posts, converted by Kieran Wilkinson, for a one-point lead and a last-ditch attempt from near halfway by Bailey fell short and could not snatch an unlikely win.
The Bath forwards will need significantly more fireworks if Cipriani is to light up the rest of the season for them.