For now at least, courtesy of an extra win, Sale move ahead of Exeter into second place in the Premiership. 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. Top spot, though, remains theirs. They dominated the first half utterly but were unable to make it tell. There was not so much as a point for either side in the opening half of this contest.
The game broke open round the hour mark, when Semi Radradra was shown a yellow card. On balance he will feel relieved, given the current climate. In the same passage of play, his tackle on AJ MacGinty came microscopically close to making first contact with the latter’s head, before his seat-belt tackle on Raffi Quirke was deemed worthy of that yellow card.
Having sent him to the sin bin, the referee studied the first tackle, almost bringing on a constitutional crisis. If that had been deemed a yellow too, should Radradra’s subsequent yellow be rescinded, as play ought to have stopped after the first, or should two yellow cards – in the same passage of play – equal a red? No wonder Mr Ridley decided the first had been worth just a penalty.
Perhaps stunned that they had not been the ones to see what would have been their 22nd yellow in 12 matches, Sale took advantage with two tries in Radradra’s absence and a third just after he returned. What had been an exhilaratingly tight affair was finally blown open.
It was so tight, indeed, that those present were witness to that rare thing in rugby these days – a scoreless half. But it would be harsh to describe the first 40 minutes as a throwback to the bad old days. Certainly Bristol can rarely have had so much ball without scoring.
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, with Ben starting after six months out, each took a turn at forcing a penalty turnover.
But normal service was resumed within five minutes of the restart. Bristol were first to register points – and a typically fluent affair it was. Radradra was released down the left and he slipped the ball inside to Charles Piutau, who sent Ben Earl to the line.
It was typical that Sale, after the pummelling they had taken, after the reintroduction of their own pummeller of pummellers, should break the game open through one of their most sprightly players – and one who had not started the match. 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.
His break forced Radradra into his yellow-card offence and from a tap and go Dan du Preez barged over to equalise on the hour. Four minutes later his brother, Rob, was away for Sale’s second after a cross-kick by MacGinty. And with 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.
The Sharks must now finish the regular season with fixtures against Harlequins and Exeter, the two teams on their tail in third and fourth. They have rehabilitated Tuilagi and have even more ugly monsters to return up front. They might just be timing their run to perfection.