Bristol 15 Sale 9: Hill conquers the elements to keep Bristol near peak

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The wind ripped in from the direction of the Gloucestershire cricket ground like a Courtney Walsh bouncer of old and made a horrible mess of a top-of-the-table tie that produced precious little beyond a slugfest between two of the more physical packs in the Premiership. As Bristol love a slugfest, particularly against a side at half-strength, it was no particular surprise that they defended their unbeaten home record and cemented their place among the pace-setters.

Conditions were so awkward that an outside-half as accomplished as David Hill, recruited by Bristol from the New Zealand provincial champions Waikato and making his home debut, took an age to find his range. His first shot at the Memorial Ground sticks was the stuff of nightmares - a ghastly right-footed shank that barely rose above turf level and ended up somewhere in the vicinity of the left corner flag. His punting into the elements was not up to much either, and had it been dry, Jason Robinson would have had himself a party running the ball back.

But as it was far from dry, and as Sale were missing international big-hitters by the gross, there was little fun to be had. Daniel Larrechea found the means to open up a six-point lead for the visitors, but once the West Countrymen took control of the set-pieces, the scales tipped decisively in their favour. David Lemi, the super-slippery wing from Samoa, would have scored a first-half try had Robinson not obstructed him after a charge-down; Dan Ward-Smith, outstanding once again in the back row, wrestled his way to within millimetres shortly after the interval.

And in the midst of these might-have-beens, Hill was regathering his wits after those early indignities. Strong enough to carry the ball into the hot spots when options were limited, he started to hurt the reigning champions with his tactical kicking downwind and damaged them further with a series of booming penalties from a variety of angles. Nine points to the good, Bristol looked more than happy with their response to the defeat at Newcastle seven days previously, and with Larrechea snatching at his own kicking opportunities, they had little to fear.

Larrechea did sink one three-pointer from distance with three minutes of normal time remaining, but their rugby was unusually fractured and error-ridden. They put Craig Morgan, the Bristol full-back, in a whole heap of trouble in the closing seconds, but the Welshman held his nerve admirably to prevent the worst from happening. It was as close as Sale went to a try all evening.

Bristol: C Morgan; Robinson, Higgitt, Cox, Lemi; Hill, O'Riordan; Hilton, Regan, Crompton, Winters, Llewellyn, Budgett, El Abd, Ward-Smith. Replacements: Blaney, Hobson, Sambucetti, To'oala, Nicholls, Strange, Brew.

Sale: Robinson; Foden, Taylor, Bell, Hanley; Larrechea, Martens; Roberts, Bruno, Stewart, Cox, Schofield, Bonner-Evans, Jones, Chabal. Replacements: Titterrell, Evans, Lloyd, Hills, Wigglesworth, Thomas, Mayor.

Referee: S Davey.