'Dominant' is a word rarely used in conjunction with Sale match reports, that is unless Sale have found themselves on the wrong side of a thumping at Welford Road or Allianz Park. Yet 'dominant' is the perfect word to describe Sale's 38-5 victory over Newport Gwent-Dragons on Thursday night that guaranteed the Sharks a home quarter-final in the next round of this season's European Challenge Cup. Tries from Brian Mujati, Josh Beaumont, Neville Edwards, Mike Haley, and a first half penalty try comfortably confirmed Sale's supremacy over their Welsh opponents who lacked the physicality and structured defensive positioning to turn the 'winner-takes-all' clash into anything resembling a competitive match.
First and foremost, Sale had the ascendancy at the set-piece across the entire 80 minutes; their scrummaging dominance led directly to two of their five tries whilst their lineout was seamless once again, a perfect 100% efficiency bolstered by the often-unheralded Bryn Evans' two lineout steals in opposition. But adding to Sale's usual areas of strength within their weekly game plan was the intuitive and incisive play of their backline who exploited Newport's porous defence to outstanding effect in a display that highlighted all the positive work backs coach Paul Deacon has done since crossing codes in the summer.
The numbers are particularly telling; Sale led comfortably in metres made (621-336), defenders beaten (25-21), clean breaks (22-5) and offloads (20-8) with standout performances from Mike Haley (143 metres made on 19 carries, two defenders beaten, two clean breaks, four offloads and a try), Neville Edwards (67 metres made on nine carries, two defenders beaten, four clean breaks, and a try), Josh Beaumont (67 metres made on 14 carries, two defenders beaten, two clean breaks, an offload and a try), and overlooked man-of-the-match Cameron Neild (98 metres made on 14 carries, a whopping eight defenders beaten, four clean breaks, two offloads, and was tied for a team hight nine tackles).
There are two players I do want to single out especially however - Danny Cipriani and Sam James. The former reacted in perfect fashion after being overlooked for Eddie Jones' inaugural England squad with a seamless display that combined a perfect goalkicking performance with his unique brand of attacking creativity that was particularly prominent in the creation of Sale's forth try. Cipriani attacked the Newport defensive line just inside the Dragons' half, produced a perfectly weighted grubber kick which he collected himself, changed direction, shrugged off a tackle and delivered a huge pass to a streaking Neville Edwards who sprinted away to score in the corner. Cipriani is clearly relishing playing alongside his childhood friend Edwards, and the pair's combination of attacking vision and blazing speed has formed a deadly, game-changing tactic for Sale this season.
A quick note also on Edwards; although I'm not ready to put him in an England shirt just yet, the 27-year-old has shown a pleasantly quick development as a Premiership player - at least in attack - and has scored six tries in only seven appearances this season, and five in his last four.
Similarly worthy of praise is Sam James, whose passing ability and creative vision was paramount in Sale's refined attacking stratagem working as well as it did against Newport. James is an ideal fit for the 'second pivot' role within the Sharks' backline that takes the onus off Cipriani to be the sole creative force during Sale possession, and James' composure and decision-making - which at only 21-years-old is superb - allowed Sale to coherently link their back-three into excellent attacking opportunities all game long. Take Mike Haley's try for example. With the ball on Newport's tryline, Sale moved possession wide to James who was part of a three-on-one overlap just to the left of the far goalpost. Instead of immediately throwing a pass to Haley on his outside and make Haley either evade or pass himself to escape the scrambling Newport defender thereby reducing how central Sale's final try would be, James instead took the ball to the line himself, forced the sole Newport defender to engage him in a tackle before spreading the ball to his outside man and allowing Haley the easiest of finishes. It is such simple play and smart decision making that is indicative of James' immense ball-playing talent and which makes him such an asset for the Sharks to employ in their backline.
The only point of disappointment during Thursday's match was the crowd, or lack thereof, of 4,015. A Thursday night Challenge Cup game in January that is being televised was never realistically going to draw more than a crowd that size, but considering the impressive nature of the Sharks' win, it is a shame that more weren't there to see it.
Due to Saturday's results Sale will face Montpellier at the AJ Bell Stadium in their Challenge Cup quarter-final sometime between the 7th-10th April, with the winner of that match facing the winner of Gloucester vs Newport in the tournament's semi-finals.
Next up for the Sharks however is a return to Premiership duty with the visit of London Irish on Saturday. The Sharks have played arguably their best rugby of the season over their last three matches and a big victory against a struggling Irish side would be the perfect appendage to a superb first month of 2016.
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