|Heineken Champions Cup Pool Two|
|Sale (10) 25|
|Tries: Van Rensburg, Penalty Try, Ashton Con: MacGinty Pens: MacGinty 2|
|La Rochelle (7) 15|
|Tries: Rattez, Doumayrou Con: James Pen: James|
Sale Sharks produced a less-than-convincing display to beat 14-man La Rochelle in the European Champions Cup.
Sale led 10-7 after AJ MacGinty’s penalty followed tries for Sale’s Rohan Janse van Rensburg and La Rochelle’s Vincent Rattez, before Pierre Bourgarit was sent off for eye-gouging Tom Curry.
Brock James kicked the visitors level at 10-10 but Sale retook the lead with a penalty try.
Chris Ashton sealed victory despite Geoffrey Doumayrou’s late consolation.
The Sharks move up to second in Pool Two, five points behind leaders Exeter Chiefs, while the French side remain rooted to the foot of the table on zero.
Mixed afternoon for Premiership side
Sale, who welcomed back South Africa World Cup winner Faf de Klerk and finalist Tom Curry, made their intentions clear from the early stages as they looked to bounce back from their opening-game defeat to Glasgow.
Having won a penalty deep in the visitors’ half in only the third minute, the hosts opted to kick for touch rather than the posts.
The ball was lost forward from the subsequent line-out but Sale took the lead moments later when De Klerk switched the direction of play for MacGinty to feed Van Rensburg to power over from close range.
La Rochelle hit back when James threw an inside pass for exciting winger Rattez to scamper clear and score under the posts, before a bizarre moment that saw referee Andrew Brace chalk off an Ashton try despite MacGinty having already kicked the conversion.
The hosts ran the length of the field to relieve the pressure and score under the sticks, before La Rochelle were ordered to halt the restart as play was brought back for a forward pass to De Klerk in the build-up.
MacGinty’s penalty saw Sale regain the lead before Remi Leroux was sin-binned for tackling Denny Solomona off the ball with the tryline at his mercy.
Two minutes later, the visitors were reduced to 13 men when Bourgarit was dismissed for putting his hands in Tom Curry’s face, but Sale failed to take the initiative from the resulting five-metre scrum as La Rochelle won a free-kick for an early drive.
And when MacGinty missed a second penalty, Sale had blown opportunities from two imposing positions to go in at the interval with a slender three-point lead.
James restored parity from the tee after the interval, but the pressure finally told when the hosts were awarded a penalty try as Dany Priso was sent to the bin for killing the ball near the posts minutes after Leroux’s return.
But the Premiership side were still unable to close out the game and had returning talisman Tom Curry to thank for maintaining their lead as the flanker turned over the ball deep in his own half after Ashton had hauled down Victor Vito.
Curry was influential throughout, making three of his team’s 10 turnovers, compared to the Top 14 side’s one.
Ashton then capitalised on the loose ball at the other end to score his 40th European try and seal victory after Levani Botia spilled the loose ball on his own line, but the visitors had the last say as Botia threw an excellent offload for Doumayrou to score late on.
‘We were a bit anxious’ – what they said
Sale director of rugby Steve Diamond: “Faf [de Klerk] provides energy in training and gives us that spark with his ability to run at defences. [Tom] Curry does the same and it’s great to have them back.
“I thought we could have done a bit better in some areas. We were a bit anxious when they were down to 13 men.
“We went off our assignments a bit by kicking and chipping the ball. If we had kept the ball in hand, we could have stressed them, but it’s our first time in three years in this competition and I’ll take the win.”
Sale Sharks: Hammersley; Solomona, Van Rensburg, R Du Preez, Ashton; MacGinty, De Klerk; Harrison, Van der Merwe, Oosthuizen, Evans, J Du Preez, B Curry, T Curry, Ross
Replacements: Webber, Morozov, John, Phillips, Postlethwaite, Papier, L James, Yarde
La Rochelle: Murimurivalu; Rattez, Doumayrou, Sinzelle, Retiere; James, Bales; Priso, Bourgarit, Herrera, Sazy, Leroux, Gourdon, Alldritt, Vito
Replacements: Orioli, Wardi, Joly, Kieft, Liebenberg, Kerr-Barlow, Botia, Plessis