Bristol 29-35 Sale: Manu Tuilagi and Co into European quarter-final after thrilling encounter

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Bristol 29-35 Sale: Manu Tuilagi and Co will travel to Paris for a Heineken European Champions Cup quarter-final after powering past Bristol in thrilling encounter under the lights

  • Sale powered past Bristol 35-29 in a fine match on Friday night under the lights 
  • Sale’s Manu Tuilagi and their South African-influenced pack were the catalysts
  • Alex Sanderson’s side had to overcome the loss of wing Arron Reed to a red card 

Manu Tuilagi and the rest of Sale’s formidable hit-men are off to Paris for a Heineken European Champions Cup quarter-final, after overcoming Arron Reed’s red card and a Bristol fightback at Ashton Gate on Friday night.

The visitors’ extreme physicality landed them in serious trouble at times in this last-16 tie. Wing Reed was rightly sent off for a reckless, high, no-arms tackle on Luke Morahan. 

Faf de Klerk had already gone to the sin-bin and Nick Schonert followed him there later, but the Sharks were rewarded for all their thunderous, forceful, legitimate commitment.

Sale are heading to the Heineken European Champions Cup quarter-final after beating Bristol

Sale are heading to the Heineken European Champions Cup quarter-final after beating Bristol

It was a win founded on power, as exemplified by marauding England centre Tuilagi and the Sharks’ South African-dominated power pack, featuring the clout of mighty Boks such as Lood de Jager, Akker van der Merwe and the du Preez brothers – Dan and Jean-Luc. 

For a club whose Premiership play-off hopes have faded in recent weeks, it means they still have at least one big prize to play for, with the benefit of certain underdog status.

Their reward for coping with a numerical disadvantage for most of the game – to establish a 24-3 lead and rally again at the end in this pulsating West Country encounter – is a shot at the winners of Racing 92 and Stade Francais, across the Channel.

It is the first time since their Premiership title era in 2006 that Sale have been in the last eight of Europe’s premier event. They will be regarded as dangerous outsiders, amongst the familiar continental elite.

Manu Tuilagi (right) helped his side to a 35-29 win founded on raw power on Friday evening

Manu Tuilagi (right) helped his side to a 35-29 win founded on raw power on Friday evening

‘We can go anywhere and win,’ said Alex Sanderson, Sale’s director of rugby, as he contemplated a grand occasion in the French capital. 

‘We play our best with our backs to the wall. That’s what the players showed tonight – they played for each other. You can have all the tactics in the world but it comes down to effort and heart. They were dropping like flies because they were so tired.’ 

Describing the prospect of a Champions Cup quarter-final as ‘massive’, Sanderson added: ‘It’s not been the season that we wanted and for the players moving on, this means that their journey isn’t over yet. This means we can send them off with the calibre of games they deserve.’ 

One man he was referring to was Sale and Springbok talisman de Klerk, who was shown a yellow card in the 20th minute of this frenetic game for an off-the-ball tackle on Fitz Harding. 

Alex Sanderson's side had to overcome the loss of wing Arron Reed (left) due to a red card

Alex Sanderson’s side had to overcome the loss of wing Arron Reed (left) due to a red card

Callum Sheedy and Rob du Preez traded penalties but then the 14-man visitors took charge.

A big shot in midfield by Tuilagi gave them possession and momentum, and soon after the half-hour, de Jager forced his way over from a lineout drive for the first Sale try. 

Reed’s red card didn’t derail Sanderson’s team as Akker van der Merwe scored from another attacking lineout and dominant maul, then Tuilagi pinched the second half re-start kick and his charge paved the way for Tom Roebuck to claim Sale’s third try. 

Back came Bristol, against tiring opponents, as Harry Thacker, Morahan – twice – and local captain Joe Joyce all scored to bring the hosts level. But Rob du Preez added two late penalties and an assist for Jono Ross’s decisive try as Sale held on.

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