Sale boss Steve Diamond admitted his side had been overpowered by La Rochelle in their European Challenge Cup semi-final but only had praise for his players.
In an eventful last-four clash, Sale pushed their French opposition all the way only to fall just short as they worked hard for what would have been a winning try late on, La Rochelle holding on for a 24-20 win.
Sale’s points came from a penalty try, a Chris Ashton try and Alan MacGinty’s boot.
Director of rugby Diamond said: “We played pretty well. We have a saying about ‘gold medal moments’ and there were two in the 22 where we knocked the ball on off a line-out.
“At semi-final level they are the difference between winning and losing. We’re a bit disappointed, but I can’t fault the lads.
“We didn’t turn up last week against Worcester in the league and we were quite pathetic, but that was a Sale team I’m proud to coach.
“What we did right was to get within four points. We took the penalty 10 minutes out, but La Rochelle are a very good side and we played into their hands a little bit with their big forwards.
“Overall La Rochelle were too powerful, but ultimately I’m very proud of the performance.”
Sale were level at 17-17 at the break thanks to the penalty try and Ashton’s score. La Rochelle also grabbed a penalty try with Kini Murimurivalu adding a second French effort.
Both teams were reduced to 14 men in the opening 40 minutes with La Rochelle’s Victor Vito and Sale’s Denny Solomona both yellow carded for their role in conceding the penalty tries.
After the break Gregory Alldritt’s try for La Rochelle soon after the game resumed proved crucial and all Sale could manage in the second half was a penalty from MacGinty.
“La Rochelle have got a strong squad, but we’re excited about where we’re going and we think we’ve got our recruitment right for next season,” Diamond added.
“We’ve got seven or eight internationals joining us and that will help in competitions like this. The Challenge Cup has been fantastic for us.
“To get to the semi-final and just miss out on the final means we can be very proud.”
La Rochelle will now play in their first European final in Newcastle on May 10.
Their captain Vito said: “We didn’t make it easy for ourselves. We weren’t disciplined. Sale came out and capitalised early. It was very close, but credit to the boys because we’ve pulled through.
“It was a tough, tough match out there. We knew we had to stick tough. We haven’t had many situations like this in our history, but we knew coming into this game we had a good defence and we wanted to back it. Little lapses on our attack cost us, but our defence held us out.
“We’ve got to enjoy the good times. We’ve just won a semi-final and we’ll enjoy the night, but the job is not done yet. We’ve got to go and nurse our achy bodies for the next game in the Top 14 and for when the final comes.”
Japan’s Oita Stadium:
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