La Rochelle have been bubbling under in European rugby for a little while but now, at their third attempt, they have themselves a semi-final in the main event. Sale marched on the Atlantic coast, chests out after the demolition job that had laid waste to the Scarlets of Llanelli the week before. They were decisively deflated come the final whistle. Or, actually, a good half an hour before – comprehensively beaten 45-21.
Alex Sanderson, newly installed with a project of his own, had noted last week how Sale’s dismantling of the Scarlets had advertised to La Rochelle that they were coming for them. It seems the hosts absorbed the message. The mix of influences – their South African wingers, the Kiwis at the heart of the team, the French talents, established and arriving, Pierre Bougarit, Brice Dulin, Kevin Gourdon et al – were too potent for mere brutality.
Sale mixed it convincingly in the first half, turning round only two points adrift and worth every bit of it, but a couple of tries at the start of the second half by Raymond Rhule pricked the bubble.
Until then proceedings were every bit as suffocating and compelling as expected. A game like this often needs a little mistake to open things up and sure enough, a wobble by Simon Hammersley under another perfectly judged high ball did the trick. Ihaia West’s kick had been the one to fluster Hammersley, and he then sent a different type, flat and deadly, to Victor Vito on the wing. The All Black No 8 stepped and off-loaded outrageously to put Grégory Alldritt over for the game’s first try half an hour in.
AJ MacGinty’s kicking from the tee was strangely shaky, missing his first penalty, but he sent his third over off a post, only for La Rochelle to reply with their second try three minutes before the break. Faf de Klerk went blind, but his pass to Marland Yarde was intercepted by Dillyn Leyds. The winger was away for the corner, and West converted from the touchline.
At 18-9, La Rochelle looked set to turn round in control, but Sale sent a penalty on the stroke of half-time to touch. From the lineout, sweet handling released Byron McGuigan through Rhule’s weak tackle, and he turned the ball inside to Sam James for that two-point deficit.
There is no doubt Rhule is better in attack than he is in defence. Within a few minutes of the restart he was back in credit with two tries, an assist and the game was won. From a lineout, West turned the ball inside for him, and he was off, streaking this way and that through a bewildered Sale defence. His second 10 minutes later owed as much to Hammersley’s misreading of a bobbling ball, but he kicked ahead and scored with some style to put La Rochelle into a 30-16 lead.
The game was pretty much theirs by then, but just past the hour they made sure. Sale were really struggling to handle the home team and when they went wide, Rhule beat one and fed Geoffrey Doumayrou on the inside for La Rochelle’s fifth. Doumayrou went over again in the last 10 minutes, this time put away by Leyds on the other wing, which rendered McGuigan’s late try all but pointless.
In the end, something of an education for Sanderson and the team he is building. He said: “I thought we were at the races after an extremely competitive first half in which we gave them some relatively soft tries. But we weren’t in the second half and we have to be better if we want to come to places like this in the future and win.”
The French mean business in this year’s event.