Sale produced an archetypal game of two halves in their Heineken Champions Cup win over the Ospreys to leave the Sharks’ director of rugby Alex Sanderson happy with victory but far from satisfied.
Sanderson saw his team race into a 21-3 half-time lead, but they did not score after the break as their discipline imploded. Sale conceded a mammoth 18 penalties and received two yellow cards.
It meant the Gallagher Premiership side missed out on a bonus-point win. The Ospreys went into this game on the back of hearing their hooker Ifan Phillips had suffered life-changing injuries in a road traffic accident and they struggled badly to start with but their response in adversity was admirable.
“We are very happy with the outcome, but there are some things we could have done a lot better,” said Sanderson. “An 18-4 penalty count and playing with 14 men makes it tough.
“We were clinical at times and back to our best with our physicality, but we couldn’t get a foothold in the second half and it was penalty after penalty. I’m disappointed not to score four tries because I felt we were good for it.”
The Ospreys warmed up with Phillips’s name on the back of their shirts as fundraising efforts to support the 25-year-old in his post-rugby career continue. Phillips’s injuries mean he will not play again. The Ospreys head coach Toby Booth described the buildup to this game as an “emotional week” and his team were caught cold by Sale’s physicality.
The Sharks’ power game was too much for the Welsh side to handle and Rohan Janse van Rensburg, Ewan Ashman and Jean-Luc du Preez all powered over in the first half.
The watching Wales head coach Wayne Pivac would not have been impressed with two of his potential Test centres in Owen Watkin and Michael Collins both missing tackles for Van Rensburg’s try. AJ MacGinty kicked all three conversions with Gareth Anscombe booting an Ospreys penalty.
A yellow card for Lood de Jager before the break for taking out Morgan Morris following repeated Sale maul infringements pointed to future Sharks problems and so it proved.
In the second half, the breakdown became a total farce as both sides piled into the contact area knowing the Italian referee Andrea Piardi’s decision making was swinging back and forth.
With the England flanker and captain Tom Curry and his twin brother Ben in their back-row, Sale were always going to be a menace at the breakdown, but they kept on conceding penalties. Tom Curry was forced off injured in the second half, but Sanderson allayed any serious concerns. “Tom is carrying an old man’s back at 23,” he said. “He took it through the autumn and if he needs a bit of time off to freshen up, we’ll give him that.
“The breakdown got a bit messy and we could look to blame the referee, but we have to look at our own actions first.”
The Ospreys were much better in the second half and had the dominant scrum, a platform from which they scored when the captain Rhys Webb threw a long pass to wing Luke Morgan who dived over in the corner. The Wales fly-half Anscombe was forced off at half-time and his replacement Josh Thomas kicked the conversion and a penalty. Ben Curry was the second Sale player to be sin-binned late on.
But their defence saw them hold out for the win although Sanderson will know his team can improve significantly from this display.
The England scrum-half Raffi Quirke thought he had grabbed a bonus-point try late on after chasing a long kick, but the score was ruled out even though he seemed to have beaten Collins to the ball. “It would have been magical to get a bonus point, but when you are betting on millimetres, it’s pretty desperate,” said Sanderson.
His opposite number Booth said: “It’s been an emotional week, for sure. It wasn’t spoken about as a motivator but, in a perverse way, that performance almost epitomised Ifan as a guy.
“He’ll be the first to say he’s not the tallest, but he’s plucky and I thought our performance was plucky. He always got stuck in and made the best of it. I suppose our performance looked a little bit like that.”