Bristol Bears 29 Sale Sharks 35
Sale Sharks, who played an hour with 14 men and 10 minutes with 13, survived a furious Bristol fightback to advance to the Champions Cup quarter-final.
This was the definition of doing it the hard way as Sale’s carefully curated 24-3 lead went up in smoke. Somehow, Sale managed to steady the ship with Rob du Preez kicking two penalties and then putting in a crossfield kick in for Jono Ross to convert and leave Bristol’s disappointing season at a dead end.
Tackle technique should probably be on the agenda for Sale boss Alex Sanderson leading into a likely quarter-final away to Racing 92. As Aaron Reed was sent off for a high tackle on Luke Morahan while Faf de Klerk and Nick Schonert also saw yellow for an off ball and high tackle respectively.
This allowed Bristol to level the scores with tries from Harry Thacker, Morahan and Joe Joyce in the space of 14 second half minutes which brought the flattest of the last 16 match-ups into uproarious life. Morahan’s second try with 90 seconds remaining created a grandstand finish but Sale squeaked home.
Those hoping for an improvement from the stodge of the first leg were in disappointment. There were a couple of flourishes from De Klerk throwing a long mispass in midfield and hooker Van der Merwe so nearly gathering his own fly-hack but for some strong spoiling work by Sam Jeffries. Otherwise it was more stable.
Then finally a moment of class when Bristol scrum half Harry Randall kicked an excellent 50-22 but having mauled and drove their way towards the posts, Van der Merwe pounced for a turnover. Sale continued to live dangerously as De Klerk was charged down by Fitz Harding resulting in a try for Jake Kerr. However, the score was scrubbed off for a knock-on which was the result of an early tackle by De Klerk on Harding. Referee Frank Murphy sin-binned De Klerk allowing Callum Sheedy to open the scoring for Bristol.
Rob Du Preez drew Sale level after excellent jackalling work by Bevan Rodd, the sole Englishman in a pack of South Africans, and the visitors seemed to take control when De Jager punched over from close range after the maul made good ground.
Then came the key moment when Reed was sent off, yet it was Sale who finished the half the stronger. Twice they turned down kicks at goal to go to the corner. On the second occasion, the maul started motoring along before Van der Merwe broke off the side, going over untouched.
Bristol began the second half in shambolic fashion as Manu Tuilagi was able to gather the restart with surprising ease helping to put Tom Roebuck over in the corner for a 24-3 lead.
Yet that advantage started to dissipate when Schonert received a yellow for another shoulder led high tackle on Joe Joyce and Bristol scored straight from the maul through replacement hooker Thacker.
Sale were struggling to stem the tide as some neat interplay put Morahan over in the corner. Even with Schonert back on the pitch, the momentum was all with Bristol as captain Joyce thundered over. Sheedy’s conversion brought the scores level only for Rob du Preez to put Sale back in front with a penalty and then John Hawkins became the first Bristol player to enter the sin-bin for another high tackle. Another penalty and his kick from him to set up Ross gave Sale a modicum of breathing space.
Bristol Bears: Lane, Morahan, O’Connor, Bedlow, Leiua, Sheedy, Randall, Woolmore, Kerr, Sinckler, Attwood, Joyce, Harding, Jeffries, Hughes.
Replacements: Thacker, Y. Thomas, Afoa, Luatua, Hawkins, Uren, Radradra, Piutau.
Sharks out: L. James, Roebuck, S. James, Tuilagi, Reed, R. du Preez, F. de Klerk, Rodd, Van der Merwe, Schonert, Wiese, De Jager, Du Preez, Ross, D. Du Preez.
Replacements: Ashman, McIntyre, Oosthuizen, J. Du Preez, Taylor, Warr, Van Rensburg, Metcalf.
Referee: Frank Murphy (IRFU).