La Rochelle victory sends champions through, eliminating them from the Champions Cup.
The highly awaited battle for advancement from Pool 4 of the Champions Cup proved to be uncomplicated for the consecutive title holders. Losses to Leinster and Stormers in the first two rounds caused some doubts about La Rochelle’s ability to make it to the last 16, let alone challenge Toulon’s impressive three consecutive wins.
Ronan O’Gara’s team has regained their winning form at the perfect moment. They easily defeated Leicester last week and continued their dominance over English teams on Sunday to secure their spot in the next round and knock Sale out of the competition. Sale was aware that a win would secure their qualification, and even Leicester would have been nervous watching, as a Sale victory and two bonus points for La Rochelle would have resulted in Leicester settling for the Challenge Cup.
But there was not much excitement for Leicester fans to worry about. They have secured their spot in the last 16, as have the current champions who confidently dealt with difficult conditions in Salford and ended Sale’s chances of advancing. This was Sale’s fourth loss in a row across all competitions, and although they had a good start and scored some points at the end, they were ultimately outplayed.
Alex Sanderson, the director of rugby for Sale, expressed his pride in their efforts and satisfaction with their attacking strategy. However, he also acknowledged that it was not enough and that they still have a long way to go in order to compete effectively in this competition.
The team started off strong and if the referee had determined that Levani Botia’s knock-on was intentional within the first 10 minutes, when Sale was about to score, the outcome of the game may have been different.
However, La Rochelle displayed exceptional defensive skills during most of the first half. With the advantage of a strong wind in the first 40 minutes, they were able to capitalize on their lead. Just one minute after Sale nearly broke the tie, La Rochelle quickly countered and scored. UJ Seuteni’s impressive pressure in midfield led to a fortunate bounce into the hands of Dillyn Leyds, who successfully finished under pressure.
Sale’s cause was not helped by a serious looking knee injury to Jonny Hill, too, and while the home side were certainly competing, they had no answer for the might of La Rochelle’s defensive superiority all half. The tricky conditions were underlined by Sale refusing a kickable penalty when trailing 10-0 but Sam James could not find touch and the defending champions certainly made Sanderson’s men pay.
Antoine Hastoy successfully converted three penalties, following a try by Leyds, to give a dominant 16-0 lead at halftime. However, with the wind at their backs, it was uncertain how much of an advantage this lead would hold, as Sale would have the same advantage in the second half. Any uncertainty about the wind playing a role in La Rochelle’s performance in the first half was soon put to rest.
Three minutes after the start of the second half, Seuteni made a deep break and Hastoy was there to assist and score a try under the posts. He then successfully converted, bringing the score to 23-0. Just four minutes later, the game was effectively over as another try was scored by Botia on a breakaway play, with Tawera Kerr-Barlow finishing it off. The score was now 30-0, and Sale’s chances of qualifying were dashed. However, they showed determination in the remaining half-hour to add some dignity to the match.
They were able to score a try after executing a smooth passing play, resulting in Tom Roebuck scoring in the corner. Sale continued to close the gap as both Hastoy and Brice Dulin were given penalties within three minutes. Agustín Creevy then scored a try from the back of the maul for Sale. However, La Rochelle secured the bonus point when Seuteni scored, crushing any hopes of a comeback. Despite a strong finish from Sale, with Sam Dugdale and Telusa Veainu scoring late tries, it was not enough to make up for the loss.
Their hard work was well-deserved, but they have their sights set on the Challenge Cup in the spring. “I have confidence in our abilities when we compete,” O’Gara cautioned, sending a message to their opponents. La Rochelle will be a formidable opponent no matter the location.