In the ever-competitive Aviva Premiership it is rare that a game gets decided conclusively in only the second minute.
But after Sale starting fly-half Dan Mugford sustained a nasty fall which would ultimately render him a non-factor for the rest of the game, the advantage was Gloucester's. To their credit, they never looked back.
A bizarre decision by Sale Director of Rugby Steve Diamond to not include a recognised fly-half on his replacements bench would ultimately cost Sale dearly, as the Sharks, with Mike Phillips at fly-half and winger Will Addison handling kicking duties, fell 13-26 on Friday night to Gloucester Rugby.
With Mugford noticeably hobbling from play-to-play and unable to kick at goal with his usual gusto (he was 0-2 in the first-half), the role of goal-kicker fell to the relatively untested boot of Will Addison, who for all his enthusiasm would ultimately prove to be a far from a suitable stand-in for the crocked Mugford who was eventually replaced midway into the second half.
Scoreline aside the game was deceptively close, Sale enjoying the lion's share of both possession and territory in the first-half only to find Gloucester devastatingly clinical in response; for all of Sale's time on the ball and switch plays along the backline, Gloucester's defensive epitomised the bend-but-don't-break philosophy whilst their rolling maul defence was some of the best I've ever witnessed in rugby, period (they stopped Sale on five consecutive attempts during the first forty). The result was Sale down 17-8 at the break, Sam James' powerful finish in the corner offset by two scything Gloucester scores from John Afoa and the perpetually dangerous Charlie Sharples.
It only got worse from there. In truth, it was apparent Diamond planned to utilise outside centre James as an emergency fly-half backup (he spent some time there whilst playing for Wilmslow high-school) should anything befall Mugford, however that plan was foiled when James himself was forced off the pitch after 50-something minutes with a thigh injury of his own. Thus Mike Phillips slid across the half-backs to number 10 (possibly for the first and only time in his career).
Despite Sale finally cracking the Gloucester goal-line defence on 54 minutes with Cameron Neild the beneficiary of the tireless work produced by the Sale pack to bring the scores to 18-13, Addison's miss of a relatively simple conversion attempt served as blood in the water (pun possibly intended) for the Cherry-and-Whites. With no fly-half to dictate play and continue the fightback, Gloucester, led by an impeccable Greig Laidlaw, took full advantage of Sale's lack of direction, killing the game off with a series of superb territorial plays that saw Laidlaw feast upon the gluttony of errors Sale produced as a result of their collective panic. Laidlaw kicked three penalties in the game's final quarter and that was that - Sale bereft of both a healthy fly-half and even a consolatory losing bonus point.
With the loss Sale slip to 7th in the table as of 22:42 Friday night, with the evening's victors leapfrogging the Sharks into 4th. A pivotal clash away to Worcester next Saturday now awaits a Sale side whose tumultuous start to their 2016-17 season continued in earnest at their no-longer impenetrable fortress.
Worcester at Sixways next week. Five points out of three games. A relegation battle (at this admittedly extremely early stage) is looking more feasible than a sustained run for the play-offs. Time to turn it around.
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