The so-called group of death in the European Champions Cup claimed a predictable first victim as Owen Farrell’s try for Saracens and a long spell of obdurate defence at the last knockings eliminated Sale from the quarter-final contention with three rounds still to play.
The teams will meet again in north London on Saturday when Saracens must expect a win there to be the minimum requirement, and maybe another two away to Clermont Auvergne and home to Munster in January, if they are to go anywhere near repeating last season’s appearance in the final.
Saracens had been winless in the three weeks of Premiership matches that led into this resumption of continental competition; a sequence partly explained by the likes of Farrell and the new England cap George Kruis in the second row being absent on international duty. Restored to something close to full strength they held firm at the end despite conceding scrum penalties and line-outs, and with Sale mounting insistent pick-and-goes. Chris Ashton, of all people, won the concluding turnover at a ruck after 10 Sale phases.
Sale’s director of rugby Steve Diamond felt a yellow card against any one of a handful of Saracens was justified in that gut-twistingly confrontational eight-minute period and he accused the Welsh referee Leighton Hodges of being “not used to the streetwiseness of Saracens”. Diamond’s opposite number, Mark McCall, praised Farrell, who lost his England No 10 jersey to George Ford during the autumn Tests, for being a “brave young fellow. Owen understands he hasn’t played much [due to injury] this season and he will get better and better”.
The pairing of English clubs together in European Cup pools has tended to be bad news for all concerned: only once in the four previous occasions has an English club reached the knockout phase, when Leicester went through in second place ahead of Wasps in 2004-5.
Saracens led with a penalty by Charlie Hodgson before falling behind to a try that showed Sale’s pack had teeth. A penalty to touch followed by a good drive and another penalty kicked to touch brought Sale into the Saracens 22. Jon Mills caught the line-out in the middle and Magnus Lund was driven over with the help of a couple of backs. It is a voguish tactic and it would be soon seen again.
Danny Cipriani converted, but while the fly-half kicked a fine penalty from 50 metres to put Sale 10-8 up after 32 minutes, his first-up tackling was not at the standard of his goal-kicking. This was doubly untimely given that Farrell, who started at inside centre for Saracens but moved to No 10 when Hodgson went off with a stinger injury in the 34th minute, twice brushed him aside. Cipriani did carry a threat with a couple of dainty left-footed dabs but he and Sale would not add to their fine Premiership form of three straight wins.
It was Farrell’s try in between the Sale scores that got his team motoring. But once again it was Sale’s defence, this time at the tail of the line-out, that was culpable.
Kruis, a quietly definitive success as an England debutant last month, palmed off the top and Hodgson, using his blindside wing Ashton as a partial decoy, danced easily between two forwards, Mills and Marc Jones. Cipriani had been deployed further out in the defensive line, and Hodgson sped on, past Chris Cusiter and Mark Cueto, before Farrell arrived to slide over the goal-line with Lund hanging off him.
Farrell’s penalty for a holding-on offence by the otherwise promising Sale full-back Mike Haley had Sarries 11-10 up at half-time, after some good jackalling by Saracens’ England prop Mako Vunipola on his first start after six months injured. It became 16-10 three minutes into the second half when Mako’s brother, Billy, rumbled over from a line-out drive controlled again by the imperious Kruis, with the powerful centre Duncan Taylor lustily piling in.
Andrei Ostrikov’s try, stepping out of a Jacques Burger tackle, would have put sale in front if Nick Macleod, on for Cipriani, had managed the fairly straightforward conversion. Instead, Farrell made the gap four points with a smooth drop goal in the 66th minute, playing with a penalty advantage for a collapsed maul.
Kruis admitted afterwards that there had been an element of relief. “Sale really came at us in a real tough end to the game but we came through,” he said. “After a couple of losses, the boys coming back from England and internationals spurred everyone on. We made two finals last year and had a great start this season. There’s been a little hiccup but we’re back on the right road.”
Sale Sharks: M Haley; L McLean (W Addison, 72), M Jennings, S Tuitupou, M Cueto; D Cipriani (N Macleod, 57), C Cusiter (W Cliff, 41); E Lewis-Roberts (R Harrison, 58), M Jones (S Mamukashvili, 69), V Cobilas, J Mills (V Fihaki, 60), A Ostrikov, M Easter, M Lund (capt), J Beaumont.
Saracens: A Goode; C Ashton, D Taylor, O Farrell, D Strettle; C Hodgson (M Bosch, 34), R Wigglesworth (N de Kock, 57-76); M Vunipola (R Barrington, 68), J George, P du Plessis (J Johnston, 57), G Kruis, A Hargreaves (capt, J Hamilton 63), K Brown, J Burger (J Wray, 68), B Vunipola.
Referee: L Hodges (Wales).
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