And then there were none. Racing 92’s rock stars may have turned up fashionably late to the party but ultimately they sprinkled more than enough stardust to sink Sale Sharks and ensure there will be no Premiership sides in the Champions Cup semi-finals for the second season running.
Finn Russell’s inspired piece of improvisation – twice kicking the ball to the line before dotting down – came soon after a similarly stunning piece of skill from Teddy Thomas and swung the tie in Racing’s favour. They were the standout moments from a side who have yet to utterly convince that this will be their year but who possess an ability to strike that Sale can only dream of. It helps, too, to have a 19-year-old scrum-half who possesses as much class as Nolann Le Garrec.
With the Premiership’s salary cap coming down, clubs have had to cut their cloth accordingly and the gulf between English sides and the continental European elite is likely to get wider. Like Leicester on Saturday, Sale cannot be faulted for their efforts but while the Premiership produced four of the five winners of this tournament before this lean spell began, it is hard to predict when their next success will come.
For, once Racing had their dander up, Juan Imhoff and Max Spring added scintillating finishes to underline the superior scoring ability at their disposal. Compounding matters for the visitors, Tom Curry, making his first start since suffering a hamstring injury during the Six Nations, limped off after 55 minutes with an ankle problem.
Sale, as you’d expect, left everything on the pitch. They defended with a resilience, particularly in a first half that made you wonder whether they might just claim a first win in the competition on French soil in 11 matches. They took the lead into the interval thanks to an opportune score from Manu Tuilagi and demonstrated unwavering commitment throughout.
Unfortunately, it was an all too familiar tale, an eerily similar outcome to last season’s quarter-final exit at the hands of La Rochelle – Racing’s last-four opponents next Sunday in Lens.
“We need to get better,” said Sale’s director of rugby Alex Sanderson. “I believe we can and we will get better. We’ve got a taste for it now. The boys like the taste. I’m pretty certain it won’t be the last time we’re into these kinds of occasions. You have to experience it, lose and come back that little bit stronger.”
What was, in truth, a pretty dreadful first half came to life in the final minute when a wayward pass from De Klerk went to ground behind Tuilagi, who gathered, spun, spotted a gap left by overzealous Racing defenders and breezed under the posts.
Sale deserved their lead given their defensive performance hitherto. De Klerk thundering into Camille Chat and driving him backwards was just one of countless tackles that left their mark and barring the odd dart from Le Garrec, Racing had rarely threatened. Le Garrec had notched two penalties to Rob du Preez’s one but with Bevan Rodd and Nick Schonert giving Sale ascendancy at the scrum and Tom Curry ensuring the visitors gave as good as they got at the breakdown, Racing could find little of the rhythm that can make them so dangerous.
That said, Racing began the second half in a significantly higher gear.
Russell’s diagonal grubber was gathered by Thomas, who did superbly well not to breach the right-hand touchline with his foot. He did even better to kick the ball in mid-air and race ahead to score.
Le Garrec added another penalty before an overcooked Sale grubber came Russell’s way inside his own half. He hacked skyward on the half-volley, chased his kick and the bounce was desperately cruel on AJ MacGinty, perfect for Russell to kick again before rounding off a score that brought a trademark grin from the Scotland fly-half. He was still wearing it when insisting it was entirely deliberate but players like Russell have a habit of conjuring these moments.
To their credit, Sale rallied and came back within a score after a close-range try from Akker van der Merwe before Imhoff dashed over on the left two more penalties from Le Garrec. Still Sale came again, Ben Curry going over at the back of the driving maul, but Spring’s score came with MacGinty in the sin-bin and after Racing had sliced the Sharks open with a ruthlessness that gave the English side a glimpse of just how much more they must improve to triumph in encounters such as these.