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Finn Russell is justifying his £1m wages after ending Bath’s shocking record

Bath 31-23 Sale Sharks

THE REC — Finn Russell has made just 20 appearances for Bath and already he is into a Premiership final, against Northampton Saints at Twickenham next weekend. There are long-serving forwards Tom Dunn and Charlie Ewels at The Rec who have been waiting since 2015 to be able to say that. And the explosion of euphoria among 14,000 fans at the final whistle of Saturday’s semi-final win over Sale Sharks told you what it meant in this rugby-mad city.

Russell, so far, has done what he was brought to Bath to achieve, arriving after the World Cup – or during it, to be precise, seeing as his Scotland side were knocked out in the pools – at a cost of £1,000,000 in wages. His team and Northampton know they are in the bracket of “you’ve won nothing yet” but in a sport beset by structural worries they are right to celebrate what they can, while they can. A week beforehand we had gloried in seeing Toulouse’s Antoine Dupont in full flow, and Russell, similarly, is a generational genius.

The last time Bath actually won the league title was way back in 1996, when it was first past the post and they nearly stuffed it up, playing against Sale Sharks on the final day. A team containing Andy Robinson and Jon Callard lost a 20-point lead to draw the match and were only able to crack open the beers for celebrations on the pitch when they heard Leicester Tigers had lost at home to Harlequins.

Apart from the symmetry of a meeting of Bath and Sale, and Robinson and Callard now working on the Rec coaching staff, the point is that at the time Bath were nabbing a sixth league title in nine years. The current side have gone nine years without a Premiership final – a shocking record for a club with all the money and facilities and hometown support you could wish for, and Bath’s South African head coach Johann van Graan knows it. And as Van Graan consistently mentions the strength of his “nine and 10”, you know he is relying on Ben Spencer and Russell to make this chance of redemption stick.

The pair make each other tick, and from that flows confidence in a team unused to knockout rugby, and hoping the obvious talents of the likes of Ollie Lawrence, Beno Obano, Ted Hill and Sam Underhill are about to distil the season into something made of silver.

Spencer, the former Saracen and now Bath’s captain, had the more eye-catching moments in the semi-final, including the clever diagonal kick towards the corner that forced Sale into conceding the line-out from which Niall Annett scored a try and Russell nailed the difficult conversion for the winning 31-23 lead.

But Russell is the headline act. The 31-year-old, who won the Pro 12 with Glasgow Warriors and a Champions Cup runners-up medal in five years at Racing 92, tore a groin muscle against Exeter Chiefs at the start of April, and there were severe fears that might be his season over.

Van Graan said post-match on Saturday: “Today our 10 came through, and one day we’ll write a book about it, what Finn went through over the last few weeks. Our media release said ‘significant injury’ and it was a significant injury. But what he and specifically Rory Murray our head of medical went through to get back into the pitch, that’s no easy feat.

“From Finn’s side, it’s not about Finn… he’s made it about the squad. And he represents the squad. And that [conversion] kick represented moments in the season when I picked different teams to go and fight for us as a group. That eight-point buffer was massive.”

On TNT Sports’ coverage, Ugo Monye reckoned to have lip-read Bath’s owner Bruce Craig saying “I think he’s worth my money” to his bespectacled companion in the corporate boxes, the tech tycoon James Dyson.

In the press seats, as the early-summer sun shone on The Rec, you could reach for a golf analogy and say Russell’s performance was mainly one of hitting the fairways and greens in regulation, with his deft short passing out of contact, and the occasional monster drive – a first-half penalty goal from the halfway line – and up-and-down saves such as the scrag of Sale scrum-half Gus Warr behind a ruck and several defensive scrambles.

As Spencer put it: “You’ve probably watched Finn’s highlight reel and you see the cross-field kicks and you see the big, long passes but you underneath all that is a really strong defensive game as well. Some of the tackles and hits he’s put in this season have been back row-esque.”

The home form of Premiership semi-final history held good – it’s now 41 semi-finals played, and still just six away wins.

It appeared to get too much for Jonny Hill, Sale’s injured England international, who was seen in a tussle with a spectator in the friends-and-family area of the main stand at the end of the match. A 28-year-old man was left with a small cut over the eye and broken sunglasses. The man, who did not wish to be named, said he had engaged the 6ft 7ins Hill in “banter”, and Sale said in a statement they and Bath would jointly investigate the incident.

As for Van Graan, who joined Bath in 2022 when they had just finished bottom of the Premiership, he promised to be up early on Sunday morning to start preparing for the Saints.

“Rugby is a warrior sport, one of the last gladiator sports remaining, and you need guys that can do things that others can’t,” Van Graan said.

“You train for moments like this – a line-out five yards out and the game on the line, one point’s the difference. And we did it. So we are tough to beat.”

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