Sale 17 Cardiff Blues 18: Blues edge close encounter

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The Independent Online

At the end of a surreal Saturday afternoon in Stockport, the biggest shock was the announcement that Munster had been unable to sell their full allocation of tickets for their Heineken Cup visit to Edgeley Park a week on Sunday.

Whatever next? A novice wing from a National Three North club outsprinting a cap centurion to clinch an EDF Energy Cup tie victory? In reality, it was only a whisker away as the spring-heeled Nick Royle narrowly failed to get past Gareth Thomas down the right flank. Royle should have been playing for Fylde at Ovenden Park, Halifax, on Saturday. Instead, the 25-year-old prolific lower league try-poacher (76 in 72 games) found himself on loan to the Premiership's third-placed club and on the wing as a replacement against Thomas and a near full-strength Cardiff Blues for half-an-hour.

By the end, Sale's shadow side featured Johnny Kennedy, the 18-year-old son of their co-owner, Brian Kennedy. The England Under-18 international did not look out of place in the centres either as he got to grips with a Cardiff midfield that included the cap half-centurion Tom Shanklin. "We had some guys on the bench today that we wouldn't have the balls, dare I say it, to use in other games," Kingsley Jones, Sale's head coach, reflected, with the mildest touch of the Joe Kinnears. "But they all went on and did well for themselves. Johnny is only 18 but he's ahead of his peers. He's a strong young man and he can take the ball forward.

"Nick Royle has got something that you can't buy: pace. There's nothing better than a fairy tale of some guy from Fylde, at 25, coming into the professional game and taking his chance."

Royle may get more chances to sink his teeth into the professional game with the Sharks. Oriol Ripol, Sale's Spanish speedster, suffered a fracture of the right arm on Saturday, becoming the North-west club's third long-term injury victim in four days, joining hooker Sebastien Bruno (ruptured biceps) and lock Sean Cox (dislocated knee cap) on the casualty list. For Cardiff, there was only the lucky break of a match-stealing score when replacement wing Richard Mustoe dived over as the clock was ticking into overtime.

The visitors had taken the lead in the 12th minute with a peach of a try from Leigh Halfpenny, set up by a darting break by scrum-half Richie Rees. Thereafter, until their late, colourful burst, the Blues were utterly insipid. "We were very poor," Dai Young, their director of rugby, confessed.

Sale rested the XV who started against London Irish in the Premiership last Wednesday night but were more than a handful for Cardiff. Richard Wigglesworth proved to be a more than troublesome customer for the visitors. Playing at outside-half, the England scrum-half combined brilliantly with Ripol to tee up Rudi Keil for the Sharks' 15th-minute try.

Sale: Try Keil; Penalties Macleod 4. Cardiff: Tries Halfpenny, Mustoe; Conversion Blair; Penalties Blair, Sweeney.

Sale: N Macleod; S Kuadey (N Royle, 53), R Keil, A Tuilagi (J Kennedy, 69), O Ripol; R Wigglesworth, C Leck; L Faure, M Jones, M Halsall (R Davies, 70), C Jones (A Shaw, 70), B Cockbain, J White (capt; J Gaskell, 69), D Tait (R Davies, 38-44), C Fearns.

Cardiff: B Blair; L Halfpenny (R Mustoe, 52), J Robinson (T Shanklin, 81), J Roberts, G Thomas; C Sweeney (N Robinson, 66), R Rees; J Yapp, R Thomas (G Williams, 77), T Filise (G Powell, 56), B Davies (D Jones, 54), P Tito (capt), A Powell (R Sowden-Taylor, 66), M Williams, M Lewis.

Referee: T Hayes (Wales).