For now at least, courtesy of an extra win, Sale move ahead of Exeter into second place. There is some way to go before they can talk about a home semi-final, but this seventh win in a row, after the pummelling their visitors subjected them to for long stretches, announces the Sharks as contenders.
Better still, Manu Tuilagi had more than half an hour from the bench and came through, a successful return to action after eight months out with an achilles injury. Bristol, meanwhile, will have to wait a little longer before confirming their home semi, but top spot remains theirs. They dominated the first half utterly, but were unable to make it tell. Not so much as a point for either side.
A scoreless half is a rare thing in rugby these days, but it would be harsh to describe the first 40 as a throwback to the bad old days. Life is rarely dull with Bristol around, and Sale have not joined them in contention for the play-offs by accident. Both teams can play – and, largely, tried to, albeit with limited success.
Certainly, Bristol can rarely have had so much ball without scoring. They had three times the possession of Sale, five times the territorial advantage, and they forced their hosts into four times they number of tackles in that opening period. They had their moments, Nathan Hughes worked clear down the left quite nicely at one point, Jake Kerr millimetres from the tryline at another, but perhaps the real plaudits should go to Sale’s ever-willing tacklers.
Whenever a Bristol carrier was stopped, there was the usual posse of grapplers for the ball. Sale’s back row, now featuring two Currys, each took a turn at forcing a penalty turnover. But in front of some home fans for the first time in however long they might have hoped for some coherence in attack – or perhaps just some opportunity. The referee did not much like them at scrum time, penalising their front row three times in the first half, and neither side could claim anything like a perfectly functioning lineout.
Normality was resumed within five minutes of the restart. Bristol were the first to register points – and a typically fluent affair it was. A ball from Callum Sheedy went to ground, not for the first time, but that threw the Sale defence. Max Malins took advantage, scooping up the ball and releasing Semi Radradra down the left. He beat the covering defender and slipped the ball inside to Charles Piutau, who sent Ben Earl to the line.
It was typical of Sale that it was one of their most sprightly who broke the game open – and one who had not started the match. Raffi Quirke has already turned heads a few times this season as Faf de Klerk’s understudy. No sooner had he been introduced than he was off from the base of a ruck.
It was Bristol defenders now turning this way and that, none less so than Radradra, who saw a yellow card at that point for a high tackle, seemingly the only way to stop Quirke. It was scrutinised for a penalty try, but there was cover.
Just before that, though, having already issued the yellow, the referee reviewed another tackle by Radradra in the same passage, which came very close to making first contact with AJ MacGinty’s head. The first point of contact was with the shoulder, just, but a constitutional crisis was looming. If it was a yellow too, should Radradra’s subsequent yellow be rescinded, as play should have after the first, or should his second – in the same passage of play – equal a red?
No wonder the referee Christophe Ridley opted for just a penalty.
The game, though, had opened up now. Quirke’s break and the penalty and yellow card it elicited set up Sale, and from a tap and go, Dan du Preez barged over to equalise on the hour. Four minutes later his brother Robert was away for Sale’s second after a cross-kick by MacGinty. And with just nine minutes remaining, Curtis Langdon finished off a lineout and drive to put Sale clear, 19-5.
A brilliant finish by Ioan Lloyd for Bristol’s second pulled the visitors to within seven again, but a late MacGinty penalty secured Sale the win.