Touch-and-go decision seals it for Gloucester

Gloucester 21 Sale 18
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The Independent Online

It is part of the lore of domestic rugby that Roy Maybank, the man nominally in charge of Saturday's exercise in communal drowning, requires assistance on a fairly regular basis; indeed, only five minutes had elapsed before the first chorus of "you don't know what you're doing" arose from the dark depths of the Kingsholm Shed. It is also true to say that Maybank did not have the foggiest idea of who was doing what to whom and why as the Gloucester forwards rolled the latest of innumerable attacking mauls towards the Sale line in the last minute or so of stoppage time.

Mr Jones Williams did have a clear impression of the chain of events, however - at least, this was his claim - and after the ball had squirted out of the side of the inevitable pile-up and Valentin Courrent, the featherweight Sale scrum-half, had run the ball into touch in what he thought was the last act of a game his side were deservedly winning by four points, he strode purposefully on to the sodden greensward to advise his senior partner of some technical infringement or other.

Maybank, who had already vented his spleen on the Sale pack by pointing Chris Jones and Andrew Sheridan in the direction of the sin-bin, duly acted upon information received and, following another interrupted line-out drive, awarded Gloucester a match-winning penalty try.

Philippe Saint-André, a Cherry and White coach in days of yore but now a man of Sale, was flummoxed, flabbergasted and thoroughly effed off.

"I do hope," he said with the sorry smile of a man who had just been diddled out of his life savings, "that the touch-judge does not turn out to live in Gloucester or Cheltenham." It was probably as well that he did not blow his stack - Saint-André frequently materialises at pitch-side in his smart suit and tie, even if it is raining cats and dogs, so a touch-line ban would only have added to his woes - but he was not best pleased, all the same.

Directors of rugby, head coaches, call them what you will... they all crave consistency from the officials. There is far too much at stake these days - gainful employment, for one thing - to countenance anything less. Thanks to Saturday's downpour, which ranged from the merely torrential to the dangerously apocalyptic, the game was awkward for the players, difficult for the spectators and well-nigh impossible for the referee. This, though, was less an issue of detail than a matter of policy. Are touch-judges meant to intervene, or are they not?

Not that Dean Ryan, the Gloucester coach, will lose too much sleep. "Sale were sharper and cleverer than us," he admitted, "but when the conditions mean that no rugby is being played, the only thing left is raw power.

"We have power, definitely, and I thought we looked dangerous when we won ourselves some decent field position. Sale can't say they weren't warned about interfering with the maul - they were penalised time and again. If anything, the referee should have awarded the penalty try sooner than he did."

Yet for all Gloucester's muscle, embodied by the threatening Patrice Collazo and the wonderfully untamed Olivier Azam, it was Sale who made the major statement, up front as well as behind the scrum.

Sheridan had a strong game at the set-piece and there were vigorous contributions from Ignacio Fernandez Lobbe, Sébastien Chabal and Jason White.

When the visitors were playing keep-ball in the closing stages, they looked entirely comfortable. It was only when Maybank penalised the outstanding White for failing to release the ball on the floor - a decision that had more than a little to do with a mass appeal from the crowd - that the home side were able to break their bonds and exert some pressure of their own.

Given the conditions, the three non-controversial tries could be afforded miracle status. The surging finishes of Chabal and Azam, on 23 and 48 minutes respectively, were far from straightforward, while Mark Cueto's blind-side dash six minutes before the interval was exceptional in every way, not least in the tip-toe precision he showed in evading Rob Thirlby and James Forrester tight to the right touch-line. There was also something to admire in the confidence of Gloucester's Jack Adams, an 18-year-old centre who put the fear of God up the Sale midfield with his pace and verve.

Adams had replaced Mike Tindall, whose aggressive input ended early in the second half.

"It was something to do with his backside," explained Ryan, when quizzed over the England midfielder's misfortune. "Something tightened up and he couldn't run freely." A tight backside, then? "I suppose so," said the coach. "Put that in your report." Consider it done, Dean.

Gloucester: Tries Azam; Penalty try; Conversion Mercier; Penalties Mercier 3. Sale: Tries Chabal, Cueto; Conversion Hodgson; Penalties Larrechea 2.

Gloucester: J Goodridge; M Foster, M Tindall (J Adams, 49), H Paul, R Thirlby (D McRae, 80); L Mercier, H Thomas; P Collazo (G Powell, 79), O Azam (M Davies, 72), P Vickery (capt), A Eustace, A Brown, P Buxton (L Narraway, 76), A Hazell, J Forrester.

Sale: D Larrechea; M Cueto, M Taylor, E Seveali'i (R Todd, 59), J Robinson (capt); C Hodgson, V Courrent (R Wigglesworth, 19-31); A Sheridan (L Faure, 72-76), A Titterrell (S Bruno, 49), B Stewart (Faure, 15-22), I Fernandez Lobbe, D Schofield (M Lund, 66), J White, C Jones, S Chabal (P Anglesea, 79).

Referee: R Maybank (Kent).

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