THE he smiles returned to the faces of Sale Sharks on Friday as their ‘must win’ Heineken Cup game against Cardiff ended in a one-point victory.
Forward power won the day for Kingsley Jones’s team, with all three tries coming from the big men in the pack. The evening lost some of its gloss, though, when England prop Andrew Sheridan dislocated his left shoulder, probably ruling him out of action until early next year.
Sharks weren’t at the races for the first twenty minutes, during which Ben Blair sent over two penalties for the visitors, but returning fly half Charlie Hodgson started to impose himself on the game in only his second appearance of the season, reducing the arrears with a 24th minute penalty. Sharks used their big men – Sheridan, Tuilagi, Roberts and Koyamaibole – to batter their way forward, but a long-range Leigh Halfpenny penalty made the score 3-9 just before the half hour mark.
A seemingly generous award by the Television Match Official gave the Sharks their first try after 32 minutes, scored by Koyamaibole after excellent approach work by Hodgson, who converted the giant Fijian’s effort. Before the re-start, Blues’ number 8 Powell was shown a yellow card for a late challenge on Dwayne Peel during the build up.
Sharks took full advantage of his absence, running in further tries from Dean Schofield and the outstanding young lock James Gaskell. Both tries were products of a training ground move peeling from the back row of the scrum, and both were converted by Hodgson to create a 24-9 lead.
Powell announced his return from the sinbin by scoring Blues’ first try on 49 minutes, converted by Blair, who later added a penalty. A trademark Hodgson drop goal ended a furious spell of Sharks’ forward pressure when it seemed that a fourth try was on the cards.
Cardiff showed their vast European experience against the Sharks’ resilient defence after Hodgson had hit a post with a 61st minute penalty attempt. The eight-point advantage seemed to be adequate until Sharks overshot a lineout near their own line, Blues flanker Robin Sowden-Taylor mopping up at the tail end to cross the try line with two minutes to go. Blair added the conversion, but the Sharks held on for a deserved and vital win. “The result made me happy, but the injury to Andrew was very sad for us,” said Sharks’ Director of Rugby Kingsley Jones. “There was a massive improvement from where we have been. We allowed the Blues into the game at the start with our over-enthusiasm, but it was pleasing in the end to see some of the things we’ve done in training come off.”
Back-to-back games against Harlequins n the Heineken Cup await in December, with the Sharks hoping to stay in contention until their final group game, when Toulouse visit Edgeley Park in January. Sheridan’s misfortune apart, this performance was a powerful statement by the Sharks, with key players returning to confirm that the squad has both talent and determination. The next fortnight sees a return to Guinness Premiership action, starting with a visit to Northampton Saints on Saturday (3 p.m.). Jim Mallinder’s side are a mighty outfit at home, but came to grief last Friday at Perpignan.
Sharks will be looking to register their first away win of the season as they aim to edge up the table.