Somewhere along the line, Sale have upset someone extremely important - quite possibly the Almighty himself. A month and a half ago, the English champions' forward pack played an international-laden Ospreys unit clean off the park in Swansea, only to run smack into the latest young genius to fall off the end of the fabled Welsh outside-half production line and lose the game in the dying seconds. Yesterday, those same forwards, minus a couple of potential world-beaters injured during the autumn Test series, reduced Stade Français to a state of purest panic in front of 45,000 Parisians before surrendering the initiative in circumstances almost too painful for words.
The English champions were a mere four points adrift and pressing hard after one of the more heroic second-half performances in Heineken Cup history when, two minutes from the end of normal time, the scrum-half Richard Wigglesworth spotted a three-on-one overlap on the short side of the pitch and flicked out what he hoped would be a scoring pass. There was a score from the pass, alright. A score for the other lot. Julien Saubade, a pain in the nether regions all afternoon, gambled on an interception, juggled the ball three times from one hand to the other and then disappeared into the wide blue yonder for the most heartbreaking of tries.
"If you ask me if I would have settled for the losing bonus point, I would have to say 'yes'," said Philippe Saint-André, the Sale director of rugby. "It was not the worst scenario going into our return match at Edgeley Park: something for us from the away game, and no fourth-try bonus for them. As it turns out, we have the worst-case scenario. I am proud of my players, of course - they performed with great courage and did not deserve the thing that happened to them at the end. But they were also naïve and at this level - a level equal to international rugby - naïvety costs everything."
Saint-André may have been the architect of the famous "try from the end of the earth" that gave France victory over the All Blacks in Auckland in 1994, but he is nobody's idea of a dreamboat fantasist. He understands more about the winning mentality than any English coach currently operating at the top end of the game, and that understanding tells him that three of the four tries scored by Stade here were wholly unnecessary. Sale were not expected to win, but the fact that they could have done and didn't will infuriate him more than any really serious thrashing they might have suffered.
At the heart of the visitors' effort to compensate for their missing legions - Charlie Hodgson and Chris Bell and Elvis Seveali'i, Andrew Sheridan and Jason White - were two of Saint-André's compatriots, the hooker Sébastien Bruno and the No 8 Sébastien Chabal, neither of whom feature in the World Cup plans of Bernard Laporte, the French national coach. If few people could work out the whys and wherefores of Laporte's position before the game, yesterday's events merely added to the mystery. Bruno was brilliant; Chabal was several times better. Between them, they put Sale on the front foot in back-foot territory and kept them there for maul after maul, ruck after ruck, tackle after tackle.
Sylvain Marconnet, that veritable Rolls-Royce of a loose-head prop with the low-slung suspension of a two-bit Citroën, felt the Bruno-Chabal force early on when he ran into both and finished a distant second. It was a statement of intent from the Sale forwards and, thus inspired, the likes of Chris Jones and Magnus Lund accompanied their colleagues every step of the way along the roughest of roads. There was no hesitancy of the kind that betrayed the Premiership club in their Heineken quarter-final against Biarritz last season. They brought everything they had to this party, and laid it on the table from the start.
Sure enough, they took an early lead through Daniel Larrechea's well-struck penalty. Frustratingly, they then messed up the restart, failed to nail Geoffroy Messina in the tackle and allowed Christophe Dominici, one of the great finishers of the last decade, a sniff of a five-pointer tight to the right touchline. Enough said. Ten minutes later, Saubade kicked behind Mark Cueto just as the Lions wing was pulling up with a hip injury and completed the try sufficiently adjacent to the sticks to allow the misfiring David Skrela a simple conversion. Four minutes after that, Dominici was away again, levitating rather than running and beating Jason Robinson all ends up.
A 40-point hiding off the back of a 17-6 half-time deficit did not seem fanciful, yet Sale redoubled their efforts at the eye of the storm and weathered it far better than their opponents. When Chabal intercepted a loose pass from Agustin Pichot and lorded his way to the line from fully 50 metres, anything and everything seemed possible.
Sadly for the visitors, what occurred was the very last thing they deserved. A crying shame? Saint-André thought so, and there was not a fair-minded soul in the French capital who had the heart to disagree.
Stade Français: Tries Dominici 2, Saubade 2; Conversions Skrela, Beauxis; Penalty Beauxis. Sale: Try Chabal; Conversion Thomas; Penalties Thomas 2, Larrechea.
Stade Français: J-M Hernandez; C Dominici (I Corleto, 40), G Messina, Mirco Bergamasco, J Saubade; D Skrela (L Beauxis, 60), J Fillol (A Pichot, 68); S Marconnet, M Blin (D Weber, 83), P de Villiers (Y Montes, 80), D Auradou (capt), M James (A Marchois, 53), Mauro
Bergamasco, P Radaban, S Parisse (A Burban, 60).
Sale: J Robinson (capt); M Cueto (M Taylor, 26), C Mayor, L Thomas, B Foden; D Larrechea (S Martens, 69), R Wigglesworth; E Roberts (L Faure, 53), S Bruno (A Titterrell, 64), S Turner (B Stewart, 68), C Jones, I Fernandez Lobbe (D Schofield, 53), J-M Fernandez Lobbe, M Lund, S Chabal (N Bonner-Evans, 72).
Referee: A Lewis (Ireland).Reuse content