Bristol 17 Sale 24: Foden brilliance leaves Bristol up the creek

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The Independent Online

The Bristol captain Matt Salter, back between the shafts after a bout of neck trouble, is currently in training for one of the more testing events in the charity calendar: a 200-mile kayak trip up some endless Norwegian fjord in aid of the Professional Rugby Players' benevolent fund and a West Country group working with disabled children. Last night's match at the Memorial Ground should have been decent enough preparation, given the popular assumption that Salter's team would find themselves up the creek without a paddle against opponents in must-win mood.

Bristol's season has been dead and buried for several weeks, to the extent that their coach, Richard Hill, admits to being more interested in the 2008-09 campaign than in the dying embers of this one. Sale are in very different territory. They have a European Challenge Cup semi-final ahead of them, for starters. More importantly still, they have a top-four Guinness Premiership finish to secure. They began this game in fifth place, three points adrift of Leicester, and were not of a mind to let things slip against opponents struggling for motivation.

So when the teams reached the interval without so much as a point between them, it was the visitors who had their cauliflower ears burned in the dressing room. Some of their first-half rugby had been decent enough, and had Mark Cueto not been cut in two by a Dan Ward-Smith tackle a few feet short of the line at the end of the opening quarter, they would have been up and away. As it turned out, they went nowhere fast. Charlie Hodgson, such a capable outside-half when he is not being hounded by the black dog of sporting depression, prodded and probed in an effort to break down Bristol's teak-tough midfield defence, but even he fluffed an opportunity to interest the scorers by missing a long-range penalty on 37 minutes.

If Bristol showed rather less in the way of attacking invention, the blame could not be laid at the feet of Shaun Perry. The World Cup scrum-half faded from view after last autumn's tournament, partly through injury and partly because a younger batch of half-backs, including Richard Wigglesworth, his direct opponent here, sneaked ahead of him in the pecking order. This was, therefore, an important outing for him, and he caught the eye with the odd barrelling break and some line-kicking that was comfortably the equal of anything Hodgson could manage.

Perry restarted with a real hiss-and-roar routine, threatening the Sale line after a sweet exchange with the full-back Luke Arscott, and then causing embarrassing problems for Elvis Seveali'i and Ben Foden with a flighted cross-kick that hung on the left flag. Bristol's attacking line-out was swept back 15 metres by the Sale pack – an event rarely seen in Premiership rugby – but Brent Cockbain, a half-time replacement in the visitors' second row, was penalised on the floor and Ed Barnes claimed the three points.

Then, all hell broke loose. Jason White smashed over to the right of the Bristol sticks for a try converted by Hodgson; Neil Brew replied within minutes with a forthright dart to the line for a score improved by Barnes; and Foden, bound for Northampton next season because he wants to play at scrum-half rather than full-back, left three home defenders, including Salter, on their rear ends with a brilliant side-stepping seven-pointer. Hodgson then dropped a goal before he and his half-back partner Wigglesworth combined cleverly to send the long-legged Chris Jones galloping clear.

Finally, at the fag-end of the game, David Lemi scored a consolatory second try for the hosts.

It was breathless stuff, and it exposed a gap in class, if not a gulf. Bristol lost nothing to Sale in the sweatshop areas, but in broken field, they struggled to hold the class acts. Sale have one or two heavy hitters working their way back from injury, including a certain Frenchman by the name of Sébastien Chabal. Title challengers? Definitely.

Bristol: Tries Brew, Lemi; Conversions Barnes, Strange; Penalty Barnes. Sale: Tries White, Foden, Jones; Conversions Hodgson 3; Drop goal Hodgson.

Bristol: L Arscott; T Arscott, R Higgitt (L Eves 65), N Brew, D Lemi; E Barnes (J Strange 65), S Perry (H Thomas 73); D Crompton, S Linklater, J Hobson, R Winters, S Hohneck, M Salter (capt), J El Abd (N Budgett 72), D Ward-Smith (A Blowers 65).

Sale: B Foden; M Cueto (L McAlister H-T), C Bell, E Seveali'i, O Ripol (S Kuadey 72); C Hodgson, R Wigglesworth (W Cliff 77); A Sheridan, S Bruno (N Briggs 65), S Turner (E Roberts 67), I Fernandez Lobbe (B Cockbain H-T), S Cox, J White (capt), C Jones, J Fernandez Lobbe (M Lund 74).

Referee: A Spreadbury (Somerset).