What should have been a stroll in the park for Sale almost turned into a nightmare as the Premiership leaders were given the runaround yesterday at Edgeley Park by an ebullient Bristol side. Richard Hill's men outscored Philippe Saint-André's side by three tries to one and had every right to feel short changed, with only a losing bonus point to show for a tremendous afternoon's work.
The Sharks clung on to win thanks to a late penalty by Charlie Hodgson - one of seven, plus a drop goal and a conversion for a personal haul of 26 points. If Hodgson had missed from 40 metres it would almost certainly have cost his side the win, given that David Lemi still had Bristol's third try up his sleeve, from a move which was started by Tommy Hayes. The much-travelled Cook Islander, who had come on for Brian Lima, converted.
All this happened while Sale were searching for the inspiration to take the game away from Bristol, take advantage of two yellow cards and maintain an unbeaten home record which now stretches to 12 games in all competitions .
Afterwards, Saint-André acknowledged that his team had underperformed. "Generally, our defence is well organised" said the Frenchman. "But not today. Charlie kept us alive."
For Hill it was an afternoon of what might have been. "We got lost on the way to the ground and arrived with only 30 minutes before kick-off, which is hardly ideal," he said. "But we now go off to La Manga for a week's warm-weather training in good heart. This was a huge effort from us and if we can keep on scoring tries and not give away as many penalties, and lose players to the sin-bin, we'll be all right."
Sale were not quite at full strength and it took them rather longer to get into their stride than they would have hoped. By the time Jason Robinson set off on one of his trademark shimmying runs the home side were 8-3 adrift with only a drop goal by Hodgson to show for a solitary visit to enemy territory.
Shaun Perry, Bristol's scrum-half, showed he can play a bit when he gathered a loose clearance by Sililo Martens and knifed through the Sale defence for a stunning solo try. Jason Strange, who had opened Bristol's account with a penalty, missed with the conversion, but the West Country side had made it abundantly clear they were not here just to make up the numbers
Indeed the numbers were still on their side after half an hour, Strange having added two more penalties to make it 14-12, Sale being obliged to rely on Hodgson's right boot for three penalties, the last of which being awarded for a needlessly late tackle on the England outside-half by the No 8 Dan Ward-Smith.
Although the lead changed hands for the third time with a howitzer of a penalty by Hodgson, Sale had not been able to piece together a convincing attack. In part this was testimony to the Bristol defence, which grew in authority as the half wore on, and Sale became increasingly frustrated as they attempted to stretch Bristol wide with their dangerous runners Mark Cueto, Oriol Ripol, Robinson and Elvis Seveali'i, none of whom were to make much of an impact.
When the home side turned to their forwards, Bristol made such a mess of a line-out drive from a penalty that the Sharks could have no complaints had they turned round several points behind, rather than one in front.
Although they kept themselves in credit with a try by Martens, converted by Hodgson, Sale were never as convincing as Bristol, for whom Hayes scored a second try with a superb chip and chase to make it 25-19.
Yellow cards for the flanker Matt Salter and Strange, plus the kicking of Hodgson, eventually did for Bristol, despite a Hayes penalty. They so nearly recorded the most notable away win of the season.
Sale: Try Martens; Conversion Hodgson; Penalties Hodgson 7; Drop goal Hodgson. Bristol: Tries Perry, Hayes, Lemi; Conversion Hayes; Penalties Strange 3, Hayes.
Sale: J Robinson (capt); M Cueto, E Seviali'i, R Todd (E Taione, 51; D Larrechea, 72), O Ripol (Larrechea, 10-24); C Hodgson, S Martens; L Faure (A Sheridan, 55), A Titterrell (S Bruno, 55), B Stewart (S Turner, 63), I Fernandez Lobbe, C Day, J White, C Jones, S Chabal.
Bristol: B Stortoni; L Robinson, B Lima (T Hayes, 63), R Higgitt, D Lemi; J Strange (M Contepomi, 72), S Perry; D Hilton, M Regan (S Nelson, 63), D Crompton, R Winters (M Sambucetti, 56), G Llewellyn, M Salter (capt), J El Abd, D Ward-Smith (G Lewis, 63).
Referee: R Maybank (Kent).