Ospreys 17 Sale 16: Sale hopes dented by cool boot of Hook

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The Independent Online

Sale will not believe this happened to them. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever. After spending the best part of an hour marmalising an Ospreys pack containing half the unit expected to play for Wales against the touring Wallabies in Cardiff next month, they saw their Heineken Cup ambitions horribly dented in the seventh minute of stoppage time. Shane Williams scored his second try of the night; James Hook, the brilliant young stand-off who orchestrated it by coolly negotiating his way through what seemed like a hundred increasingly frantic phases, added the extras with the final kick. Staggering.

Hook, a playmaker so gifted that the Ospreys coach Lyn Jones describes him as "a 21-year-old Barry John", would not have played at all but for Gavin Henson's failure to pass a late fitness test on a suspect hamstring. As it was, he replaced the vastly more experienced but profoundly out-of-sorts Shaun Connor just shy of the hour mark, and his management of the do-or-die Ospreys' attack at the last knockings was something to behold. The right-sided conversion must have stretched his nerve to snapping point, but it would have been a cruel twist of fortune had he messed up.

Sale spent much of the first quarter in all manner of strife, losing themselves in a thick mist of unforced errors - fumbles, fluffed touch-finders, missed tackles, the works. Justin Marshall, playing with a good deal to prove after his slating of the Guinness Premiership during the build-up to the game, threatened around the fringes of the forward contest and it was his clean break from a turn-over deep in his own half that led to a characteristically sharp finish in the right corner from Williams six minutes into the argument. This, on top of Connor's opening penalty, gave the Welshmen a 10-point lead before they had broken sweat.

Even though Sale responded immediately, courtesy of Charlie Hodgson's quick-witted blocking of Lee Byrne's clearance and the most simple of finishes from Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, the tide continued to flow against them. Byrne made up some of his lost ground by hoisting a high ball on the covering Mark Cueto and clattering him with a strong follow-up tackle. The Lions wing fell badly and was half-ushered, half-carried from the field in considerable distress.

Yet for all the indignities heaped on Sale in that opening quarter, they were in no mood to roll over and die. Their forwards, with Andrew Sheridan and Chris Jones prominent, began to squeeze the Ospreys with some heavy-duty work at close quarters. The Welshmen found themselves on starvation rations, and in desperation, they conceded penalty after penalty on the floor. Hodgson, slightly off-radar with the boot, missed two; Daniel Larrechea, on for Cueto, hooked one wide of the sticks from halfway. They nailed one in the end, though. Just after Brent Cockbain was directed to the sin-bin for some dodgy footwork at a ruck, Hodgson popped over a simple three-pointer to square things at the break.

They dominated the second half, too. Hodgson kicked a second penalty after the Ospreys, increasingly frustrated at the refereeing of the French official Joel Jutge, infringed at the breakdown for the umpteenth time. To add insult to injury, the home side then found themselves confronted by Sebastien Chabal, the formidable Tricolore No 8 who came off the bench sporting a Samurai haircut that bordered on the extraordinary. Chabal is quite intimidating enough, without a warrior-like contribution from his barber.

One way or another, the Sale substitutes looked like coming up trumps. Larrechea played an intelligent hand from full-back - Jason Robinson filled the Cueto-sized gap on the right wing - while Richard Wigglesworth showed flashes of his Premiership grand final form when he replaced Sililo Martens at half-back. Inevitably, there was also more devil about the pack when Chabal made his belated appearance. But Hook hurt Sale even more as he masterminded the late wave of home assaults. He has some future ahead of him.

Ospreys: Tries Williams (2); Conversions Connor, Hook; Penalty Connor. Sale: Try Fernandez Lobbe. Conversion Hodgson; Penalties Hodgson (3).

Ospreys: L Byrne (S Terblanche 40-41); S Williams, S Parker, A Bishop, N Walker; S Connor (J Hook 59), J Marshall (J Spice 66); D Jones (capt, P James 66), B Williams (H Bennett 56), A Jones (D Jones 80), B Cockbain (A Wyn Jones 53), I Evans, F Tiatia (J Thomas 56), S Tandy, R Jones.

Sale: J Robinson (capt); M Cueto (D Larrechea 12), M Taylor, E Seveali'i, O Ripol; C Hodgson, S Martens (R Wigglesworth 44); A Sheridan, S Bruno (N Briggs 66), B Evans (S Turner 44), C Jones, D Schofield (S Chabal 54), J White, M Lund, J M Fernandez Lobbe.

Referee: J Jutge (France).