Sale hit hard, hit often, and occasionally hit high. Their reward, having soaked up the self-inflicted damage caused by one red card and two yellows, is progress to the last eight of the Champions Cup. This last-16 second leg was as chaotic, eventful and entertaining as last week’s first leg had been dire. Ultimately Sale’s physicality, forward muscle and a late try by the captain, Jono Ross, was enough to deny Bristol a first visit to the quarter-finals.
On a night peppered with high tackles and TMO checks, not to mention a few tries, Sale had Arron Reed sent off in the first half, with Faf de Klerk and Nick Schonert also sent to the sin-bin either side of half-time, but the Sharks were the side still standing at the end of it all.
“You can have all the tactics in the world but it does come down to effort and heart,” said the Sale director of rugby, Alex Sanderson. “Jono asked the players on Thursday: if we’re up, if we’re down, just believe we can win this game. He drove that, they followed him and that’s the result.”
An opening flurry of kicking had suggested both teams would eliminate risk as far as possible but Sale’s scrummaging power – combined with the prompting of De Klerk – began to punch holes in Bristol’s defence. A smart 50-22 kick by the England No 9, Harry Randall, helped to arrest Sale’s early momentum and Jake Kerr soon bundled over thanks to a pop pass by the Bears wing Luke Morahan.
The try was chalked off for a knock-on after a TMO review but, at the same time, De Klerk was sent to the sin bin for an early tackle on Fitz Harding.
Callum Sheedy knocked over the conversion but when De Klerk emerged from the sin-bin 10 minutes later, it was Sale and their fearsome forwards in the ascendancy. Lood de Jager, another Sale Springbok, forced his way over for the first try.
Sale had taken a grip on the game but another card interrupted their progress. After Reed’s reckless shoulder into the face of Bristol’s Morahan, cutting in from the right, the referee, Frank Murphy, adjourned to a big screen. With every replay, the wails and jeers grew louder from Bristol fans and a red card duly appeared from Murphy’s pocket.
However, in view of the ease with which the visitors had managed De Klerk’s yellow-card absence, there was reason to believe they would deal with a permanent one-man disadvantage. That was even more apparent when another beefy driving maul allowed Akker van der Merwe to peel off the side and dot down to make it 17-3 at half-time.
When Bristol failed to gather the second-half restart, Manu Tuilagi and Jean-Luc du Preez combined to send Tom Roebuck over and give Sale a 20-point lead in the tie. Schonert’s shoulder barge on Joe Joyce led to Sale’s second yellow card and Harry Thacker, the replacement hooker, narrowed the gap with Bristol’s first five-pointer.
Down to 13, Sale understandably began to look ragged – with Semi Radradra and Charles Piutau appearing from the bench for Bristol. Morahan stole over on the right thanks to a brilliant pass by Randall and Bristol, for the first time, believed; even more so when Joyce barrelled over as the match moved into the final quarter. Du Preez’s penalty edged Sale back in front, John Hawkins of Bristol was sent to the sin-bin for a high hit, and the home side’s thrilling recovery ended when a cross-kick went right and Ross touched down. Morahan’s second try, three minutes from time, was merely a consolation.
“It’s disappointment and it’s frustration,” said Pat Lam, Bristol’s director of rugby. “We did all the hard work to get back and then we let it go at the end. The boys tried – but massive credit to Sale.”