Hodgson follows the Jonny route to cup glory

Sale 26 Cardiff Blues 24
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The Independent Online

A gripping Pool Three contest was settled two minutes from time by a drop goal from Charlie Hodgson, after the Blues had fought back in the final quarter to shake Sale to the core. If all the European club rugby is as good as this, we are in for a wonderful Heineken Cup.

It was meant to be Sale's evening. Clive Woodward paraded the Webb Ellis Cup before their first sell-out crowd at their new home, Edgeley Park, where Jason Robinson was making his first appearance. But it went down to the wire and Jim Mallinder, Sale's director of rugby, was delighted with the outcome. "It's always good to have someone like Charlie, who nearly always takes the right option," he said. "There's some way to go, but it was great to start with a win."

It hasn't taken long for the euphoria which surrounded Wales's heartening performances in the World Cup to be distilled into something considerably less palatable. Earlier in the week David Moffett, the chief executive of the Welsh Rugby Union, went public in his condemnation of the Cardiff set-up, accusing their chairman, Peter Thomas, of failing to buy into the new regional concept. "The responsibility for Cardiff's failings lies firmly at Thomas's door. For the Blues to be languishing like they are is unacceptable," said Moffett.

Judging from the way Cardiff went about their work right from the start, there might not be much more languishing. Sale very briefly got their hands on the ball before the Blues swept into the lead with a smart try by Tom Shanklin from Nathan Thomas's pass, after Iestyn Harris's tricks had opened up Sale's defence. Although the Blues' line-out was malfunctioning, the rest of their forward play was on song, and it was left to the centre Braam van Straaten to garner Sale's first points with a penalty.

By now Cardiff had revealed their facility for slowing play down in a manner of which Leicester would have been proud. On more than one occasion half the Blues' pack were lying on the wrong side of the tackled player, only to escape punishment.

A try by Mark Cueto, converted by Van Straaten, gave the Sharks the lead for the first time in the match, only for Harris to kick the first of two penalties to regain the advantage for Cardiff. With the Blues' pack gaining the upper hand at ruck and maul and the Sharks looking dangerous in broken play, the game was nicely poised, with Cardiff turning round 14-10 ahead.

Two penalties by Van Straaten restored Sale's lead, which was extended to 21-14 when the prop Andrew Sheridan grabbed a try which Van Straaten converted. Sale were now playing with a confidence and freedom not seen earlier, but they returned to the back foot when Harris kicked his fourth penalty and then converted a splendid try by Nathan Thomas.

Although Hodgson settled it with his dramatic strike, the Blues coach, David Young, was far from downcast. "A lot of people doubted if we had the attitude and commitment to compete at this level," he said. "But we silenced them, even if it was a game which got away from us."

Sale Sharks: V Going; M Cueto (C Mayor, 80), B van Straaten, G Bond, J Robinson; C Hodgson, B Redpath (N Walshe, 69); A Sheridan, A Titterrell (M Cairns, 44), B Stewart (S Turner, 63), D Schofield, I Fullarton, J White, C Jones (Turner, 44-46), A Sanderson (capt).

Cardiff Blues: R Williams; T Shanklin (N Walne, 33), J Robinson, M Allen, C Morgan; I Harris, R Powell; J Yapp (K Fourie, 71), G Williams, D Crompton, C Quinnell, A Moore, D Baugh, N Thomas, M Williams (capt).

Referee: J Dumé (France).