Underhill injury news makes bad day worse as Bath fall to 14-man Sale

“Cohesion” has become a fashionable term in rugby and there can be no doubt which team displayed more of the “C” word here. Despite losing the prop Nick Schonert to a seventh-minute red card, Sale dominated on a glistening late-summer’s day in the south-west. The Sharks’ impressively joined-up approach, executed with no little power and precision, extinguished Johan van Graan’s hopes of victory on his Premiership bow as head coach at the Recreation Ground.

Van Graan’s side began their league campaign with a narrow defeat by Bristol last week but this, considering the fact they had a man extra for 73 minutes, was far more dispiriting. Another season of frustration beckons unless the former Munster coach can galvanise his players and transform them, collectively, into something durable. News that the England back row Sam Underhill needs surgery on a shoulder problem, and will be out for 12 weeks, will hardly help.

On the other hand Sale look a team ready to challenge for the highest honours: it was an eyecatching afternoon for Tom O’Flaherty, one of their summer recruits from Exeter, while the addition of Jonny Hill in the second row also looks a natural fit. Rob du Preez, at fly-half, was metronomic and flawless off the kicking tee with 17 points while Manu Tuilagi looked fit, motivated and at his destructive best. When he recovers from injury George Ford’s vision and game-management will be a potent addition.

“Pretty simple – we’ve got to be better,” said Van Graan. “There’s absolutely no excuse from my side. You won’t get any excuse through the whole season. I learned a lot from individuals today, and I learned a lot from the team today. It’s only game two, we had moments. But not good enough.”

Even at 15-a-side, briefly, it had looked hard enough for Bath. The Sharks’ attacking machine immediately clicked when Akker van der Merwe floated the first lineout long to the No 8 Dan du Preez. Exerting that familiar crushing power in collisions, Sale engineered the opportunity for O’Flaherty to dot down.

Three minutes later came the incident that arguably defined the match, albeit in an unexpected way. Bath had a penalty but an upright tackle by Schonert on Dave Attwood attracted the TMO’s attention. The referee, Christophe Ridley, took his time in deciding there was no mitigation for Schonert. Red card.

Lesser teams would have wilted but Sale are made of strong stuff. A couple of Piers Francis penalties got Bath on the board but the Sale hooker Van der Merwe soon bundled over, bouncing off several would-be tacklers on the way. Ben Spencer, the home captain and scrum-half, went off after sustaining a blow to the head and a knock-on by Lewis Boyce, the front rower, exemplified Bath’s ineffective attempts to make their numerical advantage tell.

Soon after half-time Josh Bayliss and Cameron Redpath combined to create an overlap for Joe Cokanasiga to speed over unchallenged in the corner. That roused the home crowd, and it looked momentarily as if a stirring fightback might be on the cards. Only momentarily. The England back row Tom Curry came off the bench to round off an excellent move by the Sharks, Tuilagi feeding O’Flaherty, who offloaded inside for the England back row to dive over.

A sustained spell of pressure from Bath in Sale’s 22 brought several scrum penalties and culminated in a yellow card for Ross Harrison. But Tom Curry’s world-class jackalling work eventually won a penalty, and Bath came away with nothing.

Tom De Glanville cantered over for Bath’s second try with eight minutes left, and when Francis cracked over the conversion, Sale’s lead was cut to 10. Again, though, it was Sale who turned the screw. The replacement Jono Ross was shoved over for the try that sealed a seriously satisfying bonus point on the road.

Alex Sanderson was suitably pleased. “The togetherness, the grit,” he said of Sale’s performance. “You know what you’ve got to do [after a red card]. Your back’s against the wall. There is nowhere else to go.”

Sale can look forward to the campaign with enthusiasm but Bath desperately need to get busy. “We’ll get there,” Van Graan said. “It’s stating the obvious, but it’s going to take time.”