This Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final at La Rochelle was a massive task for Sale, a Gallagher Premiership club with a very limited European pedigree. Their trip to Stade Marcel Deflandre was just their second-ever last-eight appearance, this latest one coming 15 years after they lost 11-6 to Biarritz in San Sebastian.
A partisan Basque crowd played its part that 2006 day in ensuring the Sharks’ bite was feeble and while there would be no intimidating atmosphere over 400kms up along the Atlantic coast, the challenge was just as daunting for Sale and the outcome much, much worse, a deflating 21-45 defeat.
Just as Biarritz were back in their pomp, La Rochelle have become a Top 14 powerhouse to be reckoned with and they came into this tie with a rather unfair advantage that ultimately played a huge part in how the one-sided second-half unfolded.
Whereas the French had eight days in between their round of 16 match at Gloucester and the quarter-finals, even having the luxury of making six changes to their starting XV including an entirely changed front row, Sale had just six days in between games following their win last Sunday at Scarlets and they opted to go with the exact same starting XV.
Sale needed to have a low error count to be a nuisance and they were good value for six-all nearing the half-hour. A pair of soft enough tries were then conceded but they demonstrated grit to strike back with a clock-in-the-red converted try from Sam James to trail by just two points at the break, 16-18.
— Rugby on BT Sport (@btsportrugby) April 10, 2021
That looked very promising but Sale’s defence soon fractured on the resumption and a combination of errors and tiring players left them cashing shadows in a half where Rochelle breezed in for four more tries and a comfortable 24-point win where the visitors’ only solace was Byron McGuigan’s late consolation score. Here is how Alex Sanderson’s Sale players rated:
15. SIMON HAMMERSLEY – 4
Tidy in the opening section, making one solid catch and run. However, his flap under the high ball was the error that sparked the move for Rochelle’s first try, the full-back unable to then close down the off-loading Victor Vito after he raced across to cover following his initial mistake. Was on the ground after a ruck carry when Rochelle scored their second off a turnover, and it was then his terrible mistake on a Brice Dulin cross-kick bounce that allowed Raymond Rhule in for his second try on 52 minutes which ended the contest.
14. BYRON McGUIGAN – 6
Agonisingly couldn’t take a reverse, out-the-back pass from Faf de Klerk with the try line approaching on five minutes, and was unable to cover across sufficiently to stop Dillyn Leyds from scoring the Rochelle second. However, illustrated some sweet footwork on the edge to give James the assist for his end-of-half try. Left off-balance by Rhule’s sweet step for Rochelle’s third try and then clattered him in the air for a penalty concession minutes later. Stuck at it, though, and scored Sale’s consolation.
13. SAM JAMES – 5
Limited involvement in the first half as the game played out elsewhere until added time when his one-two with McGuigan unlocked the French defence. Continued to struggle for involvement in the second half, an example being him failing to stop Rhule from getting an assist away to Geoffrey Doumayrou to score the first of his two tries.
12. ROHAN JANSE VAN RENSBURG – 5
Penalised for the penalties that gave Rochelle their first six points, the first from a needless run across his defence when grabbing the restart after Sale went 3-0 up and then the second for offside. Was also the second Sale defender unable to shut down Vito’s try-creating offload. Hooked on 58 minutes.
11. MARLAND YARDE – 5
A player whom Sanderson felt was bang in form and should be on the England radar, he was energetic on a good 16th-minute kick-chase and it was his tackle seven minutes later that resulted in Rochelle conceding a five-metre try. Was the supposed recipient of the de Klerk pass stolen by Leyds for a try. Very quiet second half.
10. AJ MacGINTY – 4
His 32 points at Scarlets broke the 15-year-old scoring record of Charlie Hodgson and while he misfired with his first attempt of the tee here, he slotted his next four in the first half for eleven points despite one kick hitting a post and another getting retaken after Rochelle were caught shouting while charging his missed conversion. Well off the pace in the second period, starting with how he was left on the deck by the neat trick Ihaia West pulled off early, his reverse pass sending Rhule through a gaping gap to score.
9. FAF DE KLERK – 4
Was involved in the most talked-about round of 16 incident, the unpunished head clash inflicted on him by Jake Ball, and he opened in France with an array of snappy passing and box kicking. Produced the smashing grubber that Yarde turned into a five-metre scrum award but his first half was most remembered for the unwise pass on halfway to Yarde that was slapped backwards by Leyds who gathered and then broke clear to score. His frustrating display was then summed up by his poor pass which was knocked on just before he was taken off with 22 minutes remaining.
La Rochelle prove too strong for Sale Sharks.
— Rugby on BT Sport (@btsportrugby) April 10, 2021
1. BEVAN RODD – 6
Fresh from a visit last Tuesday to training from Matt Proudfoot, the England assistant touching base with potential young uncapped players ahead of the summer tour, this newcomer was impressive around the park, winning an excellent turnover penalty on 17 minutes at the breakdown and finishing the opening half as his team’s busiest tackler, his tally of seven two more than next-best WillGriff John. Off-feet with an attempted early second-half poach and was whipped off on 54 minutes with the pressure mounting and the score at 16-30.
2. AKKER VAN DER MERWE – 4
His accuracy in the tackle was highlight by the statisticians pre-game, no other forward in the last-eight matching the hooker’s 17/17 ratio, but his efforts were far less evident here in an opening half. Very difficult second half before leaving on 64 minutes, two penalties conceded while in possession, the same infringement replacement Curtis Landon made when he entered.
3. WILLGRIFF JOHN – 4
Was pulverised at the game’s first scrum, getting driven back and forced to pop his head up after a de Klerk put-in on 20 minutes. Subsequent opening half scrums were fine, while he was also busy in the traffic policing the carries of the Rochelle pack. However, popped up his head again at a Sale scrum on 49 minutes when the pressure came on again and was gone five minutes later.
4. JACOBUS WIESE – 4
Was there to put his heft around the place and his destructive attributes were clear to see when he got away with checking the chase of Dulin after he had kicked ahead from halfway on 19 minutes, but he didn’t feature at all in the second half when the crisis was in full flow.
'Add to that the fact that La Rochelle have had two extra days’ rest and recovery because they played on the Friday night, and were able to rest a few of their big hitters, and the Sharks are really up against it.'
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) April 10, 2021
5. JOSH BEAUMONT – 6
Sanderson raved in midweek about Beaumont’s leadership skills and his tenacity to make light the absence of the injured Lood de Jager. He called the lineout well here, his catch and smart transfer lulling Rochelle into the infringement that allowed Sale to go 3-0 ahead. Spoken to on a number of occasions by referee Andrew Brace over his team’s first-half penalty count. Will be disappointed by how Sale got blown away in the second half but not many fingers should point in his direction
6. JEAN-LUC DU PREEZ – 5
Came in for some niggly stuff here, perhaps a legacy from the feisty pool these teams played in Manchester not that long ago. Was held up with a choke tackle by multiple opposition players when Sale attacked off the five-metre scrum that Yarde won. Got his own back quickly, applying the initial pressure that earned the turnover penalty for 6-6. Narrowly unable to mess up the Rochelle lineout in the air that gave the French possession for their third try just after the break which set the sobering one-way pattern for the second half.
7. TOM CURRY – 6
Did many Tom Curry-like things, getting involved often and slowing Rochelle breakdown momentum. Had an unsuccessful early tilt at the try line and was then given a sit-down by a carrying Will Skelton. To the fore in the penalty that was won for 6-all and his poaching effort earned the pressure-relieving penalty that enabled Sale to go on to respond with their converted try at the break when trailing 9-18. Was another caught out, though, by West’s inside pass for the first Rhule score and was left with too much to do on his own for the game’s remainder.
8. DAN DU PREEZ – 4
Gave away the game’s first penalty when prevented from rolling away at a breakdown, the No8 was another Sale player Rochelle didn’t generally take kindly to. It was his knock-on on 57 minutes that was de Klerk’s last act and it summed up the pressure that had overwhelmed him and his pack.
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