Three penalties and a drop-goal smacking of mistaken identity do not obviously amount to a fairy-tale performance; if anything, Snow White and the seven dwarves would have stood more chance than the Sale backs of putting four tries past the best side in France for the bonus point that might have transformed fortunes in the toughest of Heineken Cup pools. But by dominating the opening quarter of another eye-wateringly physical encounter as they did, the English champions at least kept themselves in the mathematical equation - no mean achievement, given an injury list that grows by the game, if not by the minute.
The orthopaedic calamities suffered by Charlie Hodgson, Elvis Seveali'i, Andrew Sheridan and Jason White - none of whom were on Sale duty at the time of their misfortunes - have been widely chronicled, and when Mark Cueto and Sébastien Bruno pulled out of this game after breaking down during the last one, Philippe Saint-André's side were all but stripped bare. Yet there is still no end to the stripping. Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe played injured here; his big brother Ignacio started fit but ended crocked, probably for months rather than weeks. Saint-André admits that a move in the transfer market is inevitable, assuming he can find someone worth signing.
"Maybe I can still play wing, but I don't think I can play lock," said the director of rugby, mourning the loss of his outstanding Argentine lock. "It seems now that I will have to recruit some players for the second half of the season. We have a small squad, and while some inexperienced players - people like Lee Thomas and Chris Mayor - are learning a great deal by performing in games such as this, we are forced to play the same people match after match. It is a vicious circle, because players who play too much will not stay fit for long."
Stade Français are infinitely wealthier than the pride of the English north-west. What is more, the Parisians have no salary cap to cramp their style. As a consequence, they travelled with 10 internationals in their starting combination and three on the bench. Nine more were taking it easy back home.
All things considered, then, this was a remarkable victory. A victory of substance over style, to be sure, but no less special for that. Sale did not look like scoring a try, yet they spent so much of themselves up front, and tackled so ruthlessly in midfield, that there was seldom a moment when they looked vulnerable to the defeat that would have dumped them out of the tournament with a third of the pool stage still to be negotiated. Stade, blessed with all the attacking potency in the world in the shape of Mirco Bergamasco, Julien Saubade and the marvellous Juan Martin Hernandez, could not begin to find a way of breaking the shackles.
Those shackles were applied almost instantly. Sergio Parisse and Sylvain Marconnet conceded penalties under pressure in the opening 15 minutes, both of which were goaled by Lee Thomas. The Sale outside-half then propelled his pack into a prime piece of territory by forcing Ignacio Corleto into an uncharacteristic fumble, and although Chris Jones' line-out delivery was anything but tidy, the home forwards rumbled upfield with sufficient energy to put Thomas in drop-goal range. Sure enough, the ball was fired away from the breakdown - but not in the intended direction. For some strange reason, Chris Bell fielded it instead. It did not matter a jot, for he nailed the three points with barely a pause for thought.
A third Thomas penalty on 21 minutes gave Sale a 12-0 advantage, at which point the Frenchmen went up through the gears like Alain Prost of old. Lionel Beauxis, a young outside-half with the full repertoire at his disposal, cut the deficit with a straightforward kick and was then unnervingly close with an attempt from fully 60 metres. Yet he could not find the spot from the right touchline after some heavy tackling by Antoine Burban railroaded the elder Fernandez Lobbe into a handling error, and when the latter returned the compliment by poleaxing Hernandez with one of the bigger hits likely to be witnessed this side of eternity, the momentum was back with the home side.
Fabien Galthié, the Stade coach, replaced Beauxis with the more workaday David Skrela, but if he imagined this might tilt the balance his way, he was badly mistaken. The Parisians grew less adventurous, not more, as a result of the change; what was more, Rodrigo Roncero and David Auradou allowed themselves to become pugilistically distracted. Skrela did salvage a losing bonus point with a penalty three minutes into stoppage time, but Sale could hardly have cared less. They may not have salvaged their chances of pinching the pool, but they proved to themselves that major victories are possible, even in the midst of such carnage.
Sale: Penalties Thomas 3; Drop goal Bell; Stade Français: Penalties Beauxis, Skrela.
Sale: J Robinson (capt); B Foden, C Mayor, C Bell, O Ripol; L Thomas, R Wigglesworth; E Roberts (L Faure, 50), A Titterrell, B Stewart (S Turner, 50), D Schofield (J M Fernandez Lobbe, 76), I Fernandez Lobbe (N Bonner-Evans, 76), C Jones, M Lund, S Chabal.
Stade Français: J M Hernandez; I Corleto, G Messina, Mirco Bergamasco, J Saubade; L Beauxis (D Skrela, 55), J Fillol (A Pichot, 55); S Marconnet (R Roncero, 50), M Blin (B Kayser, 65), P De Villiers (Marconnet, 76), D Auradou (capt), M James (A Marchois, 70), Mauro Bergamasco (A Burban, 40), P Rabadan, S Parisse.
Referee: N Owens (Wales).Reuse content