Mercier has final say in late late show

Gloucester 21 Sale 18

Five penalties kicked to touch, two yellow cards and one last blast of the referee Roy Maybank's whistle added up to a raucous and nerve-racking finish.

The ins and outs of Maybank's decisions will be debated loud and long. There was a modicum of justice in the way Sale were ultimately undone, given they had been collapsing mauls throughout, but Gloucester's claim to the spoils was flimsy in view of their lack of overall aptitude in the pack.

Ludovic Mercier had brought Gloucester to within four points of Sale with a penalty in the 67th minute but not much happened thereafter until the Frenchman put a penalty to touch as the 80-minute mark passed.

Then all hell was let loose. Gloucester fumbled the line-out but got another chance when Sale nicked a throw on their 22, only for their England fly-half Charlie Hodgson to be charged down by Andy Hazell. It set in train a frantic sequence of close-range line-outs and penalties, during which Sale's Chris Jones and Andrew Sheridan were shown yellow cards for illegally halting Gloucester charges. The crowd roared, the visitors' forwards coach, Kingsley Jones, dashed up the touchline to bark advice and at least one call against Sale by the touch judge Huw Jones-Williams was hugely questionable.

But one last dive over the ball as Gloucester's replacement prop Gary Powell bundled for the line brought the penalty try, and Mercier's conversion was the final act.

Jones the coach (and former Gloucester flanker) had a heart-to-heart with Maybank in a clubhouse corridor afterwards: not to question the result, per se; if anything there was a degree of sympathy with the official who needs a hundred pairs of eyes at the line-out. "If we are to be a top team we need to close out games like this," said Jones.

For the rest there was the unwelcome sight of Gloucester's Mike Tindall limping off in his second serious match after seven months out injured. The England centre will have a scan on a hip muscle tomorrow.

For another England man looking to prove his fitness, Phil Vickery, the anguish was mental when he went to the sin-bin for stamping at a ruck midway through the first half. Given the downpour, Mercier was wise to kick clear from just outside his 22. Unwisely, he lost control of the ball and Sale swept to the left via Andy Titterrell, Chris Jones, Elvis Seveali'i and Jason Robinson to fashion a try for the French No 8 Sébastien Chabal.

Still reduced in number, Gloucester hit back to lead 6-5 with two penalty goals by Mercier, but Vickery's reintroduction merely set Sale up for their second try.

The prop knocked on in a line-out, Chabal and his scrum-half Valentin Courrent exploited Gloucester's laxity on the short side of the scrum and Mark Cueto hared away to equal his club-mate Steve Hanley's Premiership record of scoring in six consecutive matches.

Cueto was continuing his defiance of the Rugby Football Union's advice that he should be taking time off in the early part of the season. Perhaps there is no rest for the rapid.

Hodgson's conversion after he had missed two penalties and a conversion, in addition to two misses from Daniel Larrechea, was his last kick before taking a minor knock.

Gloucester burst into the second half with a try by Olivier Azam, but two penalties by Larrechea stretched the Sale advantage again to 18-11.

The rest was more mystery than history amid a pile of forwards and flailing limbs, but the win, and the relief, were all Gloucester's.

Gloucester: J Goodridge; M Foster, M Tindall (J Adams, 49), H Paul, R Thirlby (D McRae, 80); L Mercier, H Thomas; P Collazo (G Powell, 79), O Azam (M Davies, 72), P Vickery (capt), A Eustace, A Brown, P Buxton (L Narraway, 76), J Forrester, A Hazell.

Sale Sharks: D Larrechea; M Cueto, M Taylor, E Seveali'i (R Todd, 62), J Robinson (capt); C Hodgson, V Courrent (R Wiggles-worth, 19-31); A Sheridan (L Faure, 72-76), A Titterrell (S Bruno, 48), B Stewart (Faure, 15-22), I Fernandez Lobbe, D Schofield (M Lund, 67), J White, S Chabal (P Anglesea, 80), C Jones.

Referee: R Maybank (Kent).

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