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Sun 08 May 3:00pm Paris La Defense Arena Attendance: 9356
Racing 92 vs Sale Sharks
Sale fell at the quarter-final stage of the Heineken Champions Cup but there was no shame in missing out on a place in the semi-finals to a couple of sublime bits of skill from Teddy Thomas and Finn Russell, as Racing 92 booked a spot in the final four next weekend against La Rochelle.
As a result of Sale’s exit the curtain was brought down on English participation in the Champions Cup, with Leinster joining the French trio of La Rochelle, Racing 92 and Toulouse in the semi-finals – and that’s before the Gallagher Premiership salary cap is reduced next season by more than £1 million . For Alex Sanderson, the Sale director of rugby, the answer lies with performance and ability rather than budgets.
“We need to get better. I believe we can and we will get better. The salary cap doesn’t come into effect until next year so we can’t use that as a mitigating factor,” Sanderson said.
“We’ve got a taste for it now. The boys like the taste. I’m pretty certain it won’t be the last time we’re into these kinds of occasions. You have to experience it, lose and come back that little bit stronger.” One positive for Sale at least was that England flanker Tom Curry emerged unscathed, despite a bruising 54 minutes.
The combination of Thomas almost miraculously avoiding the touchline collecting a Russell cross-field kick before grubbering ahead to score, before Russell received a gift from above after his hack upfield bounced back perfectly into his path inviting him to produce his first try of the season, ultimately swung the contest Racing’s way.
Their superstars shone as you would expect but the impacts of 19-year-old scrum-half Nolann Le Garrec and 21-year-old full-back Max Spring were vital for Racing, offering a positive glimpse of the club’s future.
Sale were dogged and physical and led at half-time after Manu Tuilagi, showing good awareness when Racing’s defence seemed to stop after a dropped pass, cantered over for a 10-6 lead. But it didn’t last long as Racing pulled clear and Sale – outside of their short-range carrying and maul plus a dominant scrum – lacked the same threat out wide to keep Racing on their toes.
“You don’t win quarter-finals by conceding 40 points but look at the positives, it wasn’t for a lack of effort or our set-piece or physicality,” Sanderson added. “For the most part it was right up there. Some of our decisions gifted them some loose ball in space for some of their rock stars and that played into their hands.”
A first half interrupted more by scrum resets then moments of excitement was mercifully lifted right at the death by Tuilagi’s try – scooping the ball up after a loose pass, spotting the gap on the angle and bursting through to score under the posts, with Du Preez’s conversion giving Sale a deserved 10-6 lead at the break.
However a moment of sheer brilliance from Thomas had Racing immediately back in front after the break. Russell’s low grubber across the field was speeding towards the touchline when Thomas did brilliantly to catch it, somehow keeping his feet infield, before kicking ahead and dotting down to score.
The gap between his foot and the touchline must have been millimetres but the France wing was certainly in, with a frankly stunning bit of play. They will miss Thomas in these parts next season when he heads to La Rochelle.
With Le Garrec’s third penalty soon following to extend Racing’s lead to six points, after Akker van der Merwe was penalised for a trip on Thomas, Racing were back in control after that brief wobble.
Then after Russell benefited from perhaps the most fortunate bounce of a ball you have seen – hoofing a AJ MacGinty kick upfield and following it up as the ball took a sharp bounce on the angle back towards the touchline over the hapless MacGinty’s head directly into Russell’s path – the Scotland fly-half hacked on to score Racing’s third. At 23-10, that might have been game over.
Sale to their credit came up with a response, Van der Merwe burrowing over from close to the line to drag Sale back into the fight. But two penalties from Le Garrec kept Racing ahead on the scoreboard before Le Garrec and Spring combined to send over the veteran Juan Imhoff for Racing’s fourth try.
Ben Curry hit back for Sale from a maul, but appropriately it was Spring, electric throughout, who finally broke clear to score Racing’s fifth and stamp their ticket to Lens and the semi-finals.
Sale Sharks: L James (S James 73); T Roebuck, R du Preez, M Tuilagi, S Hammersley (J Metcalf 69); A MacGinty, F de Klerk (G Warr 75); B Rodd (S McIntyre 54), A van der Merwe (E Ashman 63), N Schonert (C Oosthuizen 54), JL du Preez, L de Jager, J Ross (C Wiese 56, c), T Curry (B Curry 54), D du Preez
Referee: A Brace (IRE)