Sale 7 Ospreys 18: Ospreys' cruel exit line

Rare away win is ultimately worthless after English champions dig deep
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Ordinarily an away win over the English champions would be cause enough for a Welsh region to celebrate. But Ospreys had possible qualification for the Heineken Cup quarter-finals uppermost in their minds and, in the chase for one of the best runners-up spots, their failure to bag a bonus point here left them down and out behind Munster in Pool Four and either Northampton or Biarritz - who play today - in Pool Six.

For Sale, too, this was the end of the competition, although perhaps given their terrible travails with injuries it was a blessing in disguise. Of course, the majority of a record rugby crowd on the ground did not see it that way. They gave the home side raucous support throughout a match given a lopsided start by 15 points for the Ospreys in 14 minutes.

Nor did Philippe Saint-André, Sale's director of rugby, take defeat lightly. In a tirade aimed at the Irish Test referee, Alain Rolland, who doled out two yellow cards to each side, Saint-André said: "It is difficult to win when it is 16 men against 15. All we ask for is consistency and it was probably the least consistent performance I've seen from a referee this season."

Saint-André's Ospreys counterpart, Lyn Jones, was at odds with this expression of frustration. "One thing I've learned is when you lose a game it's nothing to do with the referee. I never criticise the referee. Some decisions go your way, some don't, that's life." Jones did concede that his side's chances had gone west in Swansea the previous week when they drew with Stade Français.

Sale had to press the semi-fit centre Jon Bryant into bench duty to make up a full squad of 22, and they were back-pedalling from the off as Ospreys attacked in waves. A dart by Brent Cockbain towards the left corner was taken on for the final couple of metres for the first try by flanker Steve Tandy. The conversion was missed by James Hook but the young fly-half, who is thought to have nosed ahead of his fellow Osprey, Gavin Henson, to be Wales's inside centre against Ireland on Saturday week, had a much easier task in the 13th minute, adding the extras after Stefan Terblanche ran 45 metres to the posts from a Sale fumble. Then Hook added a penalty from 30 metres, and Sale's already tricky task on a heavily sanded pitch looked like pie in the sky.

They stuck at it, nevertheless, with a commitment that led to frayed tempers. After 18 minutes a line-out broke up with Sale's Dean Schofield throwing right handers at Ospreys' blindside Andy Lloyd and both men went to the sin-bin. Six minutes into the second half Hook committed as blatant a side-door entry into a ruck as could be imagined, and off he went, too.

The entire period in between went without a score, which was not to say it was dull. Sale, without their injured England wings Jason Robinson and Mark Cueto, bashed up the middle; Henson and the Ospreys back row smashed them back again. Sale's fourth choice fly-half, Richard Wigglesworth, broke the first line of cover only for Chris Mayor to be scragged. Sebastian Chabal roughed up Hook off the ball then planted a petulant boot into the small of Tandy's back as the Osprey flopped all over a goal-line ruck. Saint-André raged that his side deserved a penalty try; instead Chabal saw yellow.

Hook's sin-bin offence opened a window of opportunity for Sale. They tapped the penalty, sent scrum-half Ben Foden on a decoy run behind a clutch of forwards and the flanker Juan Fernandez Lobbe cantered to the line, Larrechea converting.

Still, at 15-7 down, Sale were way off the bonus point win they needed to stay in Europe. And the game was up when Fernandez Lobbe scooped up the ball offside in front of Larrechea, after the full-back knocked on, and Henson booted the penalty from 35 metres. The perma-tanned one's shuddering tackle on Chabal in the final, scoreless quarter was an apt footnote.

Sale: D Larrechea (C Bell, 68); O Ripol, C Mayor, M Taylor, S Hanley; R Wigglesworth, B Foden; L Fauré (E Roberts, 29), S Bruno (A Titterrell, 63), S Turner (B Stewart, 64), C Jones, D Schofield (C Day, 61), J Fernandez Lobbe, S Chabal (capt; M Hills, 77), M Lund.

Ospreys: S Terblanche; S Williams (T Selley, 56), A Bishop, G Henson, N Walker; J Hook, J Marshall; D Jones (capt), B Williams (H Bennett, 70), A Jones (P James, 70), B Cockbain, A Lloyd (M Powell, 53; J Spice, 78), R Jones, S Tandy (R Pugh, 63).

Referee: A Rolland (Ireland).