Sale Sharks burgled all five points from Clermont in France's sun-baked Auvergne in the Heineken Cup on Saturday, with the 32-15 win rendering their clash with Munster next weekend pivotal to Pool One.
Moments of inspiration were the difference between the teams, with Sale's tries lighting up a tense and tight encounter. Sale scored four tries, Clermont never once looked like scoring one. Tight as it was, Sale always had the edge in attack.
There was a typically probing opening from both teams, with aethetically contrasting techniques. Clermont swung the ball from side to side, relying only on Pierre Mignoni's twinkling toes and Elvis Vermeulen's bullish barging to break the Sale line.
The Sharks played a little tighter, bashing away around the fringes and occasionally testing the back three with some kicks. The intrigue was more for purists than armchair fans, an examination of ELV tactical variations and which would prevail.
Clermont enjoyed most of the possession, but Sale were convincing winners of the breakdown during the first twenty minutes, and they eked out two penalties for going off the feet, which Luke McAlister goaled for a 6-0 lead.
The turning point came right on the 20-minute mark. Dwayne Peel made a scorching break, and found Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe galloping inside in support. Lobbe lobbed it out to David Doherty sprinting down the left wing and Doherty made it home with a metre to spare. McAlister landed a fantastic touchline conversion, and Clermont had 13 points to make up.
Now Clermont opened up. Brock James put some demoralising territorial kicks into the Sale half, which Sale struggled to return. Anthony Floch and Mignoni both made some telling runs, and the forwards lumbered into gear, upping the tempo with som belligerent support.
After one attack with several phases of forward-runs and gain-line breaks, Sale's three-quarters were tempted up offside and James reduced the arrears to ten with a penalty of his own, warming up the hitherto-lukewarm crowd in the process.
James landed another from further out five minutes later - and five before the break - as Sale's scrum began to creak a little, and then missed another right on the half-time whistle as Sale's scrum failed to withstand a monster shove from the yellow-clad pack. The number of Sale injury stoppages in the first half bore testament to the pounding Clermont inflicted as the afternoon wore on, and the seven-point margin looked fragile at the break.
Sale brought on Stuart Turner for Eifion Roberts at the break in an attempt to shore up the scrum, and Peel departed five minutes into the second half, giving Charlie Hodgson a chance to prove himself. Neither change had an immediate impact, with Clermont marching through some thirteen phases before earning a penalty for James to make it 13-9.
But Hodgson's floated pass after a loose Clermont line-out gave Lamont space to run into, and after the Scot had broken two tackles Luke McAlister was on hand to finish off a sucker-punch try, which he once again converted terrifically from the touchline.
Floch dropped a high ball after the restart, and from the scrum Hodgson once again found Lamont down the left, and the Scot so nearly scored a third for his side. Instead it was James who got the next points, as Clermont once again took it through the phases and worked a penalty for the fly-half to convert.
McAlister's brilliant stepping had him clean through with 15 minutes to go, and had the ball gone left at the subsequent breakdown, Sale would have had the numbers to make the game clean and dry. Instead, Stuart Turner dropped himself onto Napolioni Nalaga's body at the tackle, James reduced the arrears to 20-15, and then Hodgson put the restart out on the full, putting his team under more pressure.
As befitting the see-saw nature of the game though, it was Sale who scored next, and wrapped up the result, when Abraham's turnover at a ruck saw Keil clean through down the blind side.
Nobody would have predicted a bonus point try, but James' chip kick from his own 22, was taken by Keil, and one ruck later Mark Cueto was in for the glory down the blind side. Sale will now be rubbing hands for Munster at Edgeley Park next week.
Pens: James 3
Tries: Doherty, McAlister, Keil, Cueto
Cons: McAlister 3
Pens: McAlister 2
Clermont: 15 Anthony Floch, 14 Napolioni Nalaga, 13 Benoit Baby, 12 Seremaļa Baļ, 11 Julien Malzieu, 10 Brock James, 9 Pierre Mignoni, 8 Elvis Vermeulen (c), 7 Alexandre Audebert, 6 Julien Bonnaire, 5 Thibaut Privat, 4 Julien Pierre, 3 Davit Zirakashvili, 2 Mario Ledesma, 1 Laurent Emmanuelli.
Replacements: 16 Mirko Lozupone, 17 Thomas Domingo, 18 Christophe Samson, 19 Emmanuel Etien; 20 John Senio, 21 Pierre-Manuel Garcia, 22 Arnaud Mignardi
Sale: 15 Rory Lamont, 14 Mark Cueto, 13 Luke McAlister, 12 Lee Thomas, 11 David Doherty, 10 Richard Wigglesworth, 9 Dwayne Peel, 8 Sebastien Chabal, 7 Luke Abrahams, 6 JM Fernandez Lobbe (c), 5 Kristian Ormsby, 4 Chris Jones, 3 Eifion Roberts, 2 Neil Briggs, 1 Lionel Faure.
Replacements: 16 Marc Jones, 17 Stuart Turner, 18 Jason White, 19 Dean Schofield, 20 Charlie Hodgson, 21 Chris Bell, 22 Rudi Keil.
Referee: Alan Lewis (Ireland)
Touch judges: Eanna O'Dowd (Ireland), Brian MacNeice (Ireland)
Television match official: John Sheehan (Ireland)