|Bristol (3) 29|
|Tries: Thacker, Morahan 2, Joyce Cons: Sheedy 3 Pen: Sheedy|
|Sale (17) 35|
|Tries: De Jager, Van der Merwe, Roebuck, Ross Cons: R Du Preez 3 Pen: R Du Preez 3|
|Sale win 44-39 on aggregate|
Sale survived Bristol’s second-half comeback and Arron Reed’s 33rd-minute red card to make the Champions Cup quarter-finals for the third time.
The visitors made light of Reed’s dismissal for a high hit to race into a 24-3 lead early in the second half.
Bristol reeled in the visitors via tries from Harry Thacker, Luke Morahan and Joe Joyce, but then lost momentum.
Rob du Preez’s boot edged Sale back in front, before captain Jono Ross dotted down to put his side out of reach.
Charles Piutau’s sensational tap-on pass set up Luke Morahan for a 78th-minute score, but it was too late to provide another twist in a remarkable game.
Sale will face either Racing 92 or Stade Francais in the last eight.
For Bristol, defeat all but ends a curiously underwhelming campaign. After finishing top of the Premiership regular season-table last year, they are currently 10th in their domestic league having lost six out of their last seven games.
Sale hang tough to make last eight
Sale scrum-half Faf de Klerk will hope to finish his final season at the club by breaking new ground and helping them to the last four for the first time.
He started this match in trademark energetic style, kicking, chasing and tackling with tenacity and accuracy.
He was shown yellow for an early tackle on Fitz Harding as he attempted to recover a charged-down kick, but Sale rode out the sin-bin period well.
The Springbok returned to the pitch with the scores level at 3-3 and watched from the back of a breakdown as his international team-mate Lood de Jager burrowed past Nathan Hughes for the opening try shortly after.
That score put Sale ahead 10-3 ahead on the night and 19-13 up on aggregate, but the odds seemed to flip against the visitors in the 34th minute when Reed saw red.
There was nothing malicious in the wing’s tackle on opposite number Morahan but he never got low and when Morahan stepped in, Reed’s shoulder made clear, forceful contact with the Australian’s head, leaving referee Frank Murphy nowhere to go.
A man down, Sale’s best hope seemed to be to keep things even tighter than usual and rely on their set-piece superiority.
It worked. For a while.
After his side had forced a penalty at the scrum, Akker van der Merwe peeled off the back of the resulting driving maul and dotted down to make it 17-3 in the final play of the first half.
With the first play of the second half, Sale stretched further ahead. Straight off the restart, Manu Tuilagi pounced on a loose ball, fed Jean Luc de Preez and Tom Roebuck dived over with just 12 seconds added to the clock.
Bristol, 20 points down on aggregate and with their season on the line, plundered their star-studded bench. Piutau, Semi Radradra and Steven Luatua were thrown into the fray.
But it was the visitors’ indiscipline rather than Bristol’s game-breakers that provided the way back into the game for Pat Lam’s side.
Sale prop Nick Schonert saw yellow for a no-arms tackle to leave his side down to 13 for 10 minutes.
Thacker duly trundled over at the back of a rolling maul a minute later, before Harry Randall’s long pass found Morahan to stroll round an under-staffed defence.
When Joyce spun out of a tackle on the 22 and cantered over in the 62nd minute, Bristol were level at 24-24 on the night and ahead by a point on aggregate.
The Ashton Gate crowd urged their side on, but instead it was Sale who found a second wind.
Robert du Preez knocked over a pair of penalties to put his side back in front, before a probing crossfield bomb was gathered by Ross to give them a lead that withstood Bristol’s desperate wave of late pressure.
Bristol director of rugby Pat Lam: “First half we were messy; we couldn’t get our line-out, we only had 37% territory and possession was low as well.
“We said at half-time we need the ball to put them under any pressure. We made another silly error to concede at the start of the second half but, to be fair to the boys, they got themselves into the lead.
“But we didn’t manage that last 10 or15 minutes – after we had got ahead – well at all. We gave away some silly penalties, and then we were chasing that game, and that’s what you don’t want to do against Sale.”
Sale director of rugby Alex Sanderson: “Simon Orange our owner is taking us to Barcelona in our Premiership bye week. He told me on Tuesday, ‘Al if you lose this it is going to be horrendous, if you win it is gong to be mega’. So I expect nothing less than four mega days off in Barcelona.
“We have to crack on again. We have Newcastle at home and the quarter-finals there after. It is made the back end of this season super exciting. There is everything to gain from a season that looked dead and buried by Christmas.”
Bristol: Lane; Morahan, O’Conor, Bedlow, Leiua; Sheedy, Randall; Woolmore, Kerr, Sinckler, Attwood, Joyce (c), Harding, Jeffries, Hughes.
Replacements: Thacker for Kerr (32), Piutau for Lane (40), Radradra for Bedlow (44), Y. Thomas for Woolmore (44), Hawkins for Attwood (41), Luatua for Hughes (44), Afoa for Sinckler (49), Uren for Randall (75)
Sin Bin: Hawkins (66)
Sale: L James; Roebuck, S James, Tuilagi, Reed; R Du Preez, De Klerk; Rodd, Van der Merwe, Schonert, Wiese, De Jager, JL Du Preez, Ross (c), D Du Preez.
Replacements: van Rensburg for Tuilagi (58), Ashman for van der Merwe (58), J. Du Preez for De Jager (46), McIntyre for J Du Preez (64), Taylor for Schonert (64), Oosthuizen for Janse van Rensburg (64).