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Lively Blues knock wind out of Sale

THEY had billed this in Cardiff as a game supercharged with last-chance import, but it never really touched the heights of a dream rekindled.

If anything, there was the touch of the routine about the home team's victory, their surge after half-time much more impressive than the surprisingly lukewarm attempts in the last quarter to secure a four-try bonus point.

They ended the game with their mighty No 8, Xavier Rush, intercepting and going over for the Blues' third try, but it was emphatic only in that it halted Sale's helter-skelter passing in their own half as the visitors tried to earn the losing bonus point that might raise their hopes against Toulouse in the final round.

Sale offered little between the opening scrum and the closing moments.

From that first set-piece they wrecked the Blues scrum and the massive Fijian, Sisa Koyamaibole, crushed those defenders who dared stand in his way. Rush was enormous, but he was the inner figure and Koyamaibole the outer in the game's set of Russian dolls.

Just before Sale handed Rush the final try, they pinched one of their own, stealing possession and finally sending the athletic James Gaskell over in the corner. This was a rare glimpse of the second row and he spent the rest of the day in the shadow of Brad Davies and Deiniol Jones, who could not have chosen a better day to remind Warren Gatland of their worth, two days before Wales announce their Six Nations squad.

Sale did have one last peak and Gaskell did make another contribution, off-loading to Mathew Tait for the centre's try. But that was it from Sale. The rest of the day belonged to the Blues, who recovered from that early scrum to take control there to such an extent that Martin Halsall was binned during a series of five-metre scrums on their line.

Even more impressive was their work from the line-out, setting up a series of driving mauls that always made ground. Just as effective -- but not quite in the spirit of the passing game that saw them advance so elegantly last season -- were the high kicks from the boots of Ceri Sweeney and Ben Blair towards the old Blues player, Nick Macleod. It gave the Sale full-back a chance to be reintroduced to Jamie Roberts, who chased with vigour and looked to be somewhere near his Lions form of last summer.

Richie Rees, the only non-international in the Blues starting line-up, also had an impressive game, showing, like the unsung locks Davies and Jones, that the Blues need the non-stars to be as effective as their big-names. The mix has not gelled often this season. It did here, the heavy work resulting in penalties, landed by Blair and Leigh Halfpenny, and the burst after the interval leading to tries by Rees and Davies.

The two tries in three minutes should have set up a dash for more tries. But the pace slowed up and although a last penalty by Blair -- he finished with seven successes from seven kicks -- ensured that the result was never in doubt, the game wandered to a conclusion.

The wandering was not without a certain interest, with the referee Romain Poite doing everything in his power to let the game flow. He was once again excellent and is fast becoming one of the best officials in the arduous business of letting rugby breathe.

The end result was that Toulouse are going to have to do something pretty stupid, like being reduced to a rabble by Harlequins, to lose control of this pool. Quins have not done much by way of reduction this season. Sale and the Blues played as if they knew this to be the truth, despite the billing they tried to slap on the tie.

Scorers -- Cardiff Blues: R Rees, B Davies, X Rush try each, B Blair 3 cons, 4 pens, L Halfpenny pen. Sale: M Tait, S Koyamailbole, J Gaskell try each; C Hodgson 2 cons.

Cardiff Blues: B Blair, L Halfpenny, C Laulala (T Shanklin 69), J Roberts, T James, C Sweeney, R Rees (G Cooper 72), G Jenkins, G Williams (T Thomas 70), T Filise (G Powell 65), B Davies, D Jones, A Powell, M Williams, X Rush.

Sale: N MacLeod, M Cueto, M Tait, L Thomas (J Kennedy 59), B Cohen (D Doherty 69), C Hodgson, D Peel (Wigglesworth 53), E Roberts, N Briggs (M Jones 57), M Halsall, D Schofield, J Gaskell, C Fearns, D Seymour, S Koyamailbole (Abraham 61).

Referee: R Poite (France).

Sunday Independent