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Jonny Hill and three other Bath vs Sale talking points

By Liam Heagney
Bath players arrive at The Rec for their semi-final versus Sale (Photo by Bob Bradford/CameraSport via Getty Images)

There will always be a nagging old traditionalist feeling that the winners of a league in rugby should be the team at the top when the regular season ends.

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That was how it was when Bath last won the Premiership 28 years ago, pipping Leicester to the trophy by a single point in a 1995/96 season that was so far back that only two points were awarded for a win and the concept of bonus points was still a far-fetched thing belonging to the future.

However, this weekend’s semi-finals in England were brilliantly entertaining matches showcasing the immense value of having end-of-season play-offs. Next Saturday’s Twickenham showpiece between Bath and Northampton awaits and it should be a fantastic occasion.

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The lads have plenty of big club games to react to this week after finals in Europe and Japan as well as some huge results in Super Rugby Pacific. We start by dissecting the games in Christchurch and Hamilton before casting an eye over the Champions Cup final.

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The lads have plenty of big club games to react to this week after finals in Europe and Japan as well as some huge results in Super Rugby Pacific. We start by dissecting the games in Christchurch and Hamilton before casting an eye over the Champions Cup final.

First, though, here are some RugbyPass talking points following a cracking visit to The Rec for the home side’s semi-final win over a proud Sale:

Healthy Premiership
It was a crying shame that the immediate coverage of Saturday’s play-off cracker was hijacked by Jonny Hill taking issue with the celebrations of one Bath supporter who was located a few rows in front of the Sale coaching bench towards the back of the riverside stand.

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Instead of his jubilation projecting out from the stand towards the pitch, the fan was seen at the full-time whistle turning around, punching the air with his left arm, and twice pointing a finger. There is a video of this reaction.

Now whether something more happened in the moments before Hill eventually went down to remonstrate with the fan, we can’t be sure. But the unsavoury situation, which could yet have a disciplinary sequel as the RFU is seeking information from both clubs, was a reminder of how strongly emotions can run with these high-profile fixtures.

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Even during the match, to the immediate right of the RugbyPass media seat, one Bath fan got immensely angry with another home supporter in the row in front due to standing up and blocking the view.

There were also social media postings from some Sale fans who were upset with incidents elsewhere in the ground.

Such stuff was a real pity to see and read as the rugby on the pitch had been a thunderous exhibition of how wonderful the sport truly is. Bath boss Johann van Graan hit this nail on the head perfectly at the end of his 15-minute post-game media briefing.

“We have had so much negativity about the game but if I just look at the last 12 months, how good was the World Cup, how good was the Six Nations?

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“I looked at the Champions Cup final last week and I thought, wow, Leinster-Toulouse, and then you watch two semi-finals, one won by two points, one by eight points, some of the best players on the planet perform.

“The Premiership is healthy, and we are very fortunate to be part of it and our team played their part. We can celebrate the Premiership; we can celebrate our opponents who were very good today.”

Well said. The on-pitch product can be glorious and must be celebrated when it is.

Penalties

6
Penalties Conceded
12
0
Yellow Cards
0
0
Red Cards
0

Heavy penalty
Discipline has hurt Sale at times during the Alex Sanderson era and it was essentially the prime difference between two great teams on Saturday as the Sharks conceded a dozen penalties, twice as many as the Bath tally of six.

This allowed Finn Russell to point to the posts with five of these infringements and his successful conversion of four of these attempts was what sent his team to Twickenham and Sale back up north ruing their near miss.

A first-half reversal encapsulated how it unfolded. Sale were set to have a no-release penalty deep in Bath territory that would have offered George Ford a shot for three points or else the chance to punt to the corner and invite their lineout drive to do as it did on two other occasions in the half by scoring a try.

Instead, TMO review resulted in the penalty award being scratched due to a clearout that had happened earlier on halfway. So, rather than Sale eating into the 5-15 margin that existed at the time, they went 5-18 behind as Russell landed a belter of a long-range kick.

It left Sanderson in a philosophical mood afterwards. “You can only soak up that pressure for so long until you concede points which we did both by way of penalties and then that maul try at the end. Victims of our own demise but all credit to Bath.”

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Unsung hero
Both match days 23s were peppered with some stars of the global game but we have to praise Niall Annett, whose converted try settled the outcome in favour of Bath. The 33-year-old’s cameo highlighted how elite rugby isn’t all about the stars, as journeyman pros also have an integral part to play.

Annett’s career was stuck in a rut many moons ago at Ulster where he was the break-glass-in-case-of-emergency option way behind Rory Best and Rob Herring. He could have sat there, taken the coin and lived an easy life only ever playing now and again.

Instead, his chip on the shoulder meant wanted out to show elsewhere that he could play rugby as well as anyone else. Off to Worcester he went for eight years before his intended Bath debut in van Graan’s first match in charge in September 2022 ended bizarrely in a red card for an incident while warming up in the in-goal area.

However, he has since proven himself to be a valuable piece of the jigsaw that has transformed fortunes at The Rec. The moral of the story for players everywhere? Always have difficult conversations with yourself.

“I suppose the chip on my shoulder has been a really useful tool,” he told RugbyPass in an interview a while back. “It has been a difficult tool to manage at times because in your own head you are having conversations that aren’t always very easy.

“But the chip on my shoulder having to leave Ulster has been one that motivates me in the darkest and deepest times whenever you need that little kick, whenever you need that inspiration to go and do extra work and work extra hard, so I would say all in all it has been a positive for me.”

Saturday’s invaluable try showed exactly that.

From allegedly ‘ruining players’ to brilliance
The Bath transformation from lower table also-rans to potential Premiership champions is a Hollywood script few in Ireland could have foreseen as van Graan’s time at Munster ended in huge frustration regarding their blunted style of play.

It got so bad that former Ireland international Keith Wood voiced a withering put-down in January 2022, claiming: “There is no point talking about Munster’s attack, that doesn’t exist at the present moment of time, and we are beginning to ruin some of the players and I’m finding it incredibly hard to watch.

“If there is a disruption with the coaches, well I’d rather the coaches went if that was the case than stay and play that level of turgid nonsense.”

The parting of the ways that followed has seen both parties flourish. Munster last year won the URC, their first trophy since 2011, while van Graan, operating in a very different situation under Bruce Craig in England compared to IRFU diktat in Ireland, has been transformed into what will now be the job of his life as he is now contracted at The Rec until 2030.

A heavy weight has clearly been lifted from his shoulders and a warm personality that was largely hidden in Limerick has emerged and is shining. Fair play to him.

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Comments

1 Comment
M
Michele 21 days ago

Great article! Love that you point out so much that is positive, and back it up with quotes and clips.

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