The perfect result for Toulouse was the outcome of an open if sometimes slapdash Anglo-Welsh set-to and ultimately we had confirmation of the suspicion before kick-off that these two sides were probably playing for second place at best in Pool Five of the Heineken Cup.
A bonus-point win for Toulouse against Harlequins (who are out) today would seal quarter-final qualification; a win of any kind will do unless Sale can beat the French by a big margin in Stockport next weekend. For Sale and the Cardiff Blues that leaves the possibility of going through as a runner-up – it has never been done with 18 points before, and that is all either can now manage – or dropping into the Amlin Challenge Cup which may suit them OK.
The need to push for tries as well as the win prompted both teams to demonstrate that funny old tactic of attempting to make ground by running with the ball and passing it. Too often, particularly in the first half, the quality was not up to the intent, and the only try before the interval was soft in its conception if barrellingly tough in the execution. The Blues lost control of a scrum in the seventh minute, the ball shot out between Xavier Rush and Andy Powell – the latter was looking elsewhere, poor bloke – and Sale's No 8 Sisa Koyamaibole had the simple task for a man of 120kg of driving through the tackle of the scrum-half, Richie Rees.
Charlie Hodgson missed the conversion but the fly-half has reappeared in the England pecking order, in the Saxons squad 18 months after apparently losing all favour due to his porous defence in New Zealand. He has plenty of company in the Saxons squad, with Shane Geraghty, Danny Cipriani and Stephen Myler. There were several contenders on show with a better bet than Hodgson of appearing in the England v Wales opener to the Six Nations' Championship at Twickenham in three weeks' time, though Sale's mighty loosehead prop, Eifion Roberts, might not be one of them if he is pipped by Saracens' Rhys Gill in one of their country's problem positions. The Wales coach, Warren Gatland, names his squad tomorrow. Roberts gave the Blues' Taufau Filise a lively afternoon's scrummaging. But Gatland may not have liked the 22st Roberts's lumbering attempts as a link-man in the loose.
Penalties by Ben Blair in the second, 20th and 33rd minutes, and by Leigh Halfpenny from his customary long range in the 30th, helped Blues lead 12-5. Most of Sale's offences were for diving through or around the ruck as the French referee, Romain Poite, acted sharply at the breakdown. In the midst of this, the Blues openside Martyn Williams fished and foraged to Sale's distraction and without attracting Monsieur Poite's whistle. And with two tries in the first six minutes of the second half, the Blues took a firm grip on the match.
Halfpenny knifed towards the posts off the right wing, drawing in Ben Cohen, among other tacklers, and leaving a shortside gap when the ball was recycled which Rees exploited for a try at the corner. Why Poite and a touch judge needed the television match official to confirm was unclear; they were closer to Rees as he went over than Sale's James Gaskell.
Blair converted that and the subsequent score by the lock Bradley Davies after the Blues' heavy brigade busted up the middle. Trailing 26-5, Sale were thankful of an immediate riposte when Hodgson probed from a ruck and Gaskell gave a lovely pass for Mathew Tait – who knows now England see him solely as an outside centre, if not necessarily the first-choice one – to score. Hodgson converted.
Sale's Wales scrum-half, Dwayne Peel, looked mournful when he limped off after 53 minutes, having suffered a groin injury. Halfpenny was off- target with another penalty but Blair potted an easier effort for 29-12 and Sale were further wounded when a scrum near their line broke up and their tighthead prop, Martin Halsall, went to the sin-bin for an illegal dabble. Hodgson sashayed and distributed beautifully to make a try for Gaskell at the right corner, the penalty count belatedly swung towards Sale and tyhe Blues had Martyn Williams sent to the sin-bin for pushing his breakdown nefariousness too far. But his back row mate Rush snaffled an interception try immediately afterwards, to the delight no doubt of Toulouse.
Cardiff Blues B Blair; L Halfpenny, C Laulala (T Shanklin, 69), J Roberts, T James; C Sweeney (S Norton Knight, 78), R Rees (G Cooper, 72); G Jenkins (capt), G Williams (TR Thomas, 70), T Filise (G Powell, 65), B Davies, D Jones (P Tito, 56), A Powell, X Rush, M Williams.
Sale Sharks N Macleod; M Cueto, M Tait, L Thomas (J Kennedy, 59), B Cohen (D Doherty, 69); C Hodgson, D Peel (R Wigglesworth, 53); E Roberts, N Briggs (M Jones, 56), M Halsall (G Kerr, 75), D Schofield, J Gaskell (C Jones, 78), C Fearns, S Koyamaibole (L Abraham, 61), D Seymour (Kerr, 65-75).
Referee: R Poite (France).