The last act of dispossession was performed by the monumental Sébastien Chabal, who, joyously alert to the fact that there were precisely no seconds left on the official game clock, crawled over the near touchline with the ball wholly concealed in the deepest recesses of his armpit and Simon Shaw - no midget himself at the best part of 20st - clinging for dear life to his back. It was a fitting finale, not least because the French No 8 had carried the world on his shoulders for 90-plus minutes of brutal rugby. He is, to be sure, an Atlas for the union game.
Together with Jason White and Magnus Lund on the flanks - not to mention the lump of second-row granite known as Ignacio Fernandez Lobbe and some bloke by the name of Jason Robinson at full-back - Chabal dominated yesterday's Premiership semi-final at Edgeley Park, and as a result their opponents' own world slipped off its axis. Having pinched three successive titles from under the noses of the regular-season champions, the Londoners could not work the oracle a fourth time. Sale, top of the log after 22 league matches but with nothing but bruises to show for their considerable efforts, were in no mood to follow Gloucester, Bath and Leicester up the Wasps muggers' alley.
Of course, they still have the small matter of a Twickenham final to negotiate before they can claim what should have been theirs as long ago as last month, and as Philippe Saint-André, their director of rugby, was quick to acknowledge, the old cabbage patch in south-west London is a very long way from Sale's idea of a theatre of dreams. They lost a dirge of a cup final to Leicester in 1997, and finished second once more in an altogether brighter showpiece two years ago, having led Newcastle on no fewer than five occasions. It may be they will have to play better than they did yesterday, just to give themselves an even chance of breaking their duck at HQ.
But whatever transpires on Saturday week, they will struggle to surpass this performance in terms of physicality. Both Robinson and White were left in quivering heaps during a first half of unrelenting intensity, yet stuck at it for the duration. White's contribution was all the more remarkable for the fact that his mistimed tackle on Ward rendered him unconscious for several seconds. There was a good deal of concern over Charlie Hodgson, too. The England outside-half finished a distant second to the outsized Shaw when the Wasps lock clattered him as he took a high ball, and the painful consequences - Hodgson played the rest of game with damaged ribs - cast a shadow over his participation on the world champions' forthcoming tour of Australia.
Tom Voyce, an international colleague of Hodgson's during the Six Nations Championship, ended the afternoon in a still worse state, although his travails were due to muscular misfortune rather than being mown down in the heavy traffic. The Wasps winger found himself in a prairie's worth of space after collecting a loose kick by Elvis Seveali'i at the start of the second quarter, but as he set sail for the goal-line his hamstring gave out on him. The points went begging, and Voyce went too, straight off the field. He is even less likely than Hodgson to make the trip to Wallaby country.
If Wasps lost their cutting edge in that moment, Sale applied theirs to the jugular some 16 minutes later. Seveali'i, Lund and Fernandez Lobbe worked minor miracles to keep the ball alive in the face of Wasps' renowned "blitz" defence, Andy Titterrell found Robinson with a cute pass, and the full-back, side-stepping through a gap in time-honoured style, motored in from 45 metres with Mark van Gisbergen and Josh Lewsey choking in the exhaust fumes. It was a stunning try, right up there alongside the finest of the former England captain's twinkle-toed masterpieces.
"I've known Jason since he was 17, and if I've learned anything it's that you can't hesitate when he has the ball," said Shaun Edwards, the Wasps coach, who shared many a celebration with Robinson during their rugby league days with Wigan. There was no divvying-up of the glory yesterday, yet Edwards was generous in his praise. "It was a try worthy of winning a semi-final. There was nothing else between the sides."
Sale begged to differ with that last remark. As expected, they made a rare mess of Wasps' powder-puff scrummage; as anticipated, they won the line-out contest by a distance. Largely as a result of this set-piece dominance, they unleashed Chabal in the right areas of the field. With Lund and White at his side, the tattooed Tricolore inflicted the full range of torments on the likes of Lawrence Dallaglio and Joe Worsley, who spent too long on the back foot to offer any serious threats of their own.
Wasps might have made a better fist of defending their title had Van Gisbergen not miscued a couple of straightforward penalty shots in the first half. Hodgson, meanwhile, delivered a faultless place-kicking performance, despite being the worse for wear. For all Edwards' insistence to the contrary, there were several things between the two teams. The major difference now is that only one of them remains in the tournament.
Sale: Try Robinson; Conversion Hodgson; Penalties Hodgson 5. Wasps: Penalties Van Gisbergen 4.
Sale: J Robinson (capt); M Cueto, M Taylor, E Seveali'i (C Mayor, 68), O Ripol; C Hodgson, S Martens (B Foden, 63); L Faure (Turner, 93), A Titterrell (S Bruno, 51), S Turner (B Stewart, 56), I Fernandez Lobbe (D Schofield, 67), C Jones (Lund, 92), J White, M Lund (C Day, 84), S Chabal.
Wasps: M van Gisbergen; P Sackey, J Lewsey, S Abbott, T Voyce (F Waters, 21); J Staunton (A King, 63), E Reddan (M Dawson, 55); T Payne (J Va'a, 81; Payne, 92), J Ward (R Ibanez, 51), P Bracken, S Shaw, R Birkett (J Haskell, 49), D Leo (Haskell, 21-29; M Lock, 84), J Worsley, L Dallaglio (capt).
Referee: C White (Gloucestershire).Reuse content