What a statement from Ronan O’Gara’s La Rochelle, now right in the hunt to win a maiden Champions Cup crown. Sale, so impressive last Sunday against Scarlets, were torn to pieces after half-time in the Bay of Biscay, conceding four second-half tries as La Rochelle emphatically booked their place in the semi-finals with a 45-21 win
Raymond Rhule’s brace — one try off a well-worked set play, the other stemming from Simon Hammersley’s moment of hesitation fielding a bouncing kick — left Sale trailing by 14 points at the start of the second half and they never recovered from that setback.
Alex Sanderson, the Sale head coach, said: “I’m proud of our intent and ability to stick at it, but we have to be better. We want to win these games, and you don’t do that by conceding 45 points.
“The scrum ended up being a weapon for them that led to points. Maybe we placed too much emphasis on the physicality of the game, going toe-to-toe with some of their big boys, which I feel we did for the most part.
“All of this is a learning curve. I have lost more of these than I have won in the past, and you’re going to lose them ultimately to win them. It’s the start for us, and something I’m sure we’ll bounce back from.”
O’Gara’s La Rochelle have won plaudits for their attacking play and KBA (keep ball alive) mantra but there is a real balance to this side, the creativity of Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Ihaia West and Brice Dulin matched by relentless power upfront.
Sale’s pack are not used to being bullied but they certainly were at times here, particularly at the scrum. After their dominance against Scarlets in the last 16, this was a sobering afternoon.
“It’s very satisfying for the staff to see the reward for the players after the effort they have put in,” Jono Gibbes, the La Rochelle director of rugby, said. “To create a bit of history and write a new chapter in this proud club’s history, it’s what you’re involved in sport for.”
It was going to take a touch of class to crack open either defence with the game tied at 6-6 after nearly half an hour. Step forward Victor Vito, claiming West’s cross-field kick, stepping in and drawing in tackles from Hammersley and Rohan Janse van Rensburg before offloading for Gregory Alldritt to score.
AJ MacGinty sent a penalty effort clanging in off the inside of the post to keep Sale in touch but, with half-time approaching, La Rochelle produced a crucial second try.
Faf de Klerk, attempting to put Marland Yarde away down the touchline, had his pass picked off by Dillyn Leyds, before the South African sprinted clear to score.
It could have been even worse for Sale had Tom Curry not pounced for a breakdown turnover, giving the visitors one final shot at the end of the first half. And how they took it, Curry’s no-look pass a highlight as he and Sam James released Byron McGuigan, with James then in support to score Sale’s first try.
MacGinty had a second crack at the conversion, after La Rochelle were pulled back for screaming at the kicker during their run-up, the No 10’s two points leaving Sale trailing 18-16.
That deserved score for Sale before the interval left things finely poised for the second half, at least until Rhule turned on the jets and tore through their defence. It was the perfect resumption for La Rochelle, winning the lineout at the tail, the flicked pass inside by West setting Rhule on his way.
Rhule was not done. How Hammersley must wish he could have another shot at fielding Dulin’s chip across to the wing, the bounce eluding Sale’s full-back and allowing Rhule to kick ahead and score his second.
West could not land the conversion but Sale faced a real challenge to claw back the 30-16 deficit.
La Rochelle were now looking for the killer blow and it soon came. Dulin’s wide pass found Rhule and the hosts had the overlap they wanted; Rhule turning provider to send over Geoffrey Doumayrou for La Rochelle’s fifth try.
West’s penalty and a second try for Doumayrou, after Leyds broke through the defensive line, poured on the pain for Sale, with McGuigan’s try doing little to help their disappointment.
Scorers — La Rochelle: Rhule, Doumayrou 2 tries each; Alldritt, Leyds try each; West 3 pens, 3 cons. Sale: McGuigan, S James try each, West 3 pens, con 1.
La Rochelle: B Dulin; R Rhule, G Doumayrou, L Botia (P Aguillon 65), D Leyds; I West, T Kerr-Barlow (T Berjon 71); R Wardi (D Priso 53), P Bourgarit (F Bosch 71), U Atonio (A Joly 58), R Sazy (T Lavault 65), W Skelton, G Alldritt, K Gourdon (W Liebenberg 61), V Vito.
Sale: S Hammersley; B McGuigan, S James. R Janse van Rensburg (R du Preez 57), M Yarde; A MacGinty, F de Klerk (R Quirke 57); B Rodd (R Harrison 53), A van der Merwe (C Langdon 62), W John (C Oosthuizen 53), C Wiese (J Phillips 66), J Beaumont, J du Preez (C Neild 66), T Curry, D du Preez.
Referee: A Brace (Ireland).
© Telegraph Media Group Ltd 2021
Telegraph Media Group Limited