Sale 18 Gloucester 15: Unlikely hero keeps the leaders on course

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The Independent Online

One mob clad in blue having their credentials for high honours questioned was enough for the weekend. While David Cameron and his Tories sought to convince the doubters at their spring conference just up the road in Manchester, Jason Robinson drop-kicked Sale to the brink of a home semi-final in the Premiership.

Robinson's most ardent fan might hesitate to list a peerless right boot much higher than 11th in a top 10 of his greatest attributes, although longevity would certainly be there, as this was reckoned to be the England World Cup winner's 500th professional match in the two rugby codes. Nevertheless, with Charlie Hodgson hobbling around on a sore ankle after taking a heavy tackle, it fell to Robinson, in the "pocket", to apply the finish to some glorious blindside driving by Chris Jones and Magnus Lund. The captain did not let his team down.

The three points gave Sale the lead for the first time, and there were roughly eight minutes remaining.

Gloucester, fielding a youngish side with one eye on development, had been gradually running out of ideas and suffered from having a man sent to the sin bin in each half. Bravely, though, they worked a final opportunity to equalise when Sale's tighthead prop Barry Stewart became the last of many miscreants to be pinged at the breakdown by referee Dave Pearson.

The upshot was a tricky kick 35 metres out, to the right of the posts, and Ludovic Mercier, on as a replacement for the 19-year-old fly-half Ryan Lamb, had been given no chance to get his eye in. The wind which had assisted Gloucester towards a 12-3 interval lead - four penalties by Lamb, who added a fifth early in the second half - was now in their faces. The Frenchman made a scuffed hash of it and, with a curse of "merde", perhaps, that was that. Sale now have an eight-point lead over second-placed Wasps, who have yet to play Leicester, who are fourth.

The bad news for Sale is that they look like a team losing momentum. There were again without Sébastien Chabal, whose anticipated return at No 8 after a five-week ban was prevented by a stomach bug. Chabal has never been complimentary about the cuisine around these parts. Perhaps a local greasy spoon got its revenge.

Sale were again tryless after drawing a blank in last week's Heineken Cup defeat by Biarritz, and the injuries are piling up too. "Two months ago we would have scored two or three tries," said Philippe Saint-André, Sale's director of rugby. "We didn't look fresh or have a lot of urgency but at least we kept going."

Gloucester may yet find their way into next season's Heineken, either through league position or by winning the European Challenge Cup. If all their young English prospects flower together they will be blooming tough to beat. For now they could do with one or two more grizzled forwards in the image of Sale's Dean Schofield, who in a delightful early tableau at a rolling maul appeared to be picking a fight with each of the Gloucester eight in turn. It was even more uproarious to see Schofield tapped on the shoulder and told to get on with it, like a naughty schoolboy, by his own scrum-half, Richard Wigglesworth. But he had suckered the visitors' prop Gary Powell into retaliating; a yellow card was the result, though not before the ball squirted out to the left and the Sale loosehead Ben Coutts fell prey to goal-line fever when he ought to have fed the two men outside.

Lamb and Hodgson kicked a penalty apiece in the opening quarter. Lamb favours the flat pass whereas Hodgson was happy to take contact - to his own detriment as it turned out.

But before the England fly-half was hurt he kicked penalties after 47, 53 and 60 minutes to peg Gloucester back. Mike Tindall went to the sin bin in the 65th minute and Wigglesworth - though unable to fit his name on to the back of his shirt - filled Hodgson's boots capably to level the scores when Gloucester went offside in front of their posts.

Give or take umpteen thumping tackles from Jason White, the rest was done by Robinson.

Sale: J Robinson (capt); M Cueto (D Larrechea, 79), M Taylor, E Seveali'i, S Hanley; C Hodgson, R Wigglesworth; B Coutts (S Turner, 40), A Titterrell (S Bruno, 50), B Stewart, C Jones, D Schofield (I Fernandez Lobbe, 40), J White, N Bonner-Evans (C Day, 65), M Lund.

Gloucester: O Morgan; J Simpson-Daniel, M Tindall (J Bailey, 23-27), A Allen, M Foster; R Lamb (L Mercier, 60), P Richards; P Collazo, M Davies, G Powell (J Forster, 72), J Pendlebury (A Eustace, 54), A Brown, P Buxton (capt; L Narraway, 65), J Forrester (Forster, 14-24), A Hazell.

Referee: D Pearson (Northumberland).

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