Champions Cup: Toulouse and Leinster into the knockouts with solid wins over Sale Sharks and Gloucester
Sale Sharks will need to beat Ulster next weekend after going down 27-5 to Toulouse at home in the Champions Cup on Saturday.
A dangerous clean-out in the first half saw South Africa’s Cobus Wiese red-carded, and while Sale showed tremendous character throughout most of the game, it was not enough to prevent the loss.
Toulouse found their rhythm in the second half, securing their third win in a row and have pretty much guaranteed a spot in the last 16.
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After Sale were rocked by a nasty clash of heads between Nick Schonert and Simon McIntyre after barely 15 seconds, they responded well by winning a couple of early scrum penalties.
Some surprisingly loose hands from the French five-time Champions Cup winners offered some encouragement to Alex Sanderson’s Sharks close to the Toulouse line, and it was from another scrum that the hosts broke the deadlock.
Sale worked it perfectly, allowing Akker van der Merwe to dart through sharply from close range and touch down – Rob du Preez’s conversion attempt struck the post.
With Gus Warr in particular snapping into tackles, Sale were looking good as the quarter-stage of the game approached, but they then lost Wiese to a red card after much deliberation from referee Mike Adamson.
The South African star was penalised for a dangerous clear-out at a ruck.
Toulouse responded swiftly with Melvyn Jaminet popping over a penalty in front of the posts, before Romain Ntamack fluffed a seemingly routine run to the line as he was tackled just yards short.
Rucks on both sides were becoming a little messy, but by the end of a rather stop-start opening half, the Sharks still held a slight 5-3 advantage.
With a man disadvantage, a huge second period beckoned for Sale, but it did not get off to the best start as the French giants soon took the lead.
Jaminet was precise from some distance as his penalty kick made it 6-5 to the visitors at a packed AJ Bell Stadium.
It was a case of deja vu minutes later when Jaminet was again dead-eyed from distance, with another penalty stretching Toulouse’s lead to 9-5.
It was 12-5 when Jaminet kicked from close range the next time, after tiring Sale were punished again.
As the game moved into the final quarter it was Toulouse who were now unsurprisingly dominant, but credit to Sale, they initially kept Le Stade at bay.
Another long-ranger from Jaminet made it 15-5, then, when Emmanuel Meafou scrambled over in the corner to finally register the visitors’ first try in the 69th minute, it was game over for Sale.
Jaminet’s kick made it 22-5, before Guillaume Cramont’s try in the other corner saw many home fans head for the exits, with Toulouse eventually running out comfortable winners.
Lethal Leinster dominate Gloucester
Elsewhere, Leinster took charge of their Champions Cup tie and defeated Gloucester 49-14 at Kingsholm on Saturday.
The Dublin men played a brilliant game of rugby and were in control for most of the match, scoring some fantastic tries along the way.
Leo Cullen’s men qualify for the last 16 with the strong win and will be looking to go one better this season after finishing as runners-up last time around.
The Irish heavyweights secured a bonus-point by half time through tries from wing Jordan Larmour, prop Michael Ala’alatoa, centre Jamie Osborne and number eight Caelan Doris.
Fly-half Ross Byrne converted all four scores and, although Gloucester claimed two penalty tries from collapsed mauls, it was damage limitation from an early stage.
Leinster full-back Hugo Keenan crossed early in the second period for a try that Byrne again converted, then flanker Josh van der Flier touched down, with replacement Harry Byrne adding the extras.
And Ronan Kelleher added a seventh Leinster try on the stroke of full-time, converted by Harry Byrne, leaving Gloucester to reflect on their heaviest home defeat in top-flight European competition.
With eight teams qualifying from each of two pools, though, Gloucester could still reach the Champions Cup knockout phase if they beat Bordeaux-Begles in France next weekend.
But for Leinster, it is already a case of mission accomplished in terms of progressing from their group, and a record-equalling fifth European title is certainly not beyond them on current form.
Gloucester showed two changes from the team edged out by Gallagher Premiership opponents Saracens, with George Barton replacing full-back Lloyd Evans and Seb Atkinson starting at inside centre instead of Giorgi Kveseladze.
Centre Garry Ringrose returned to captain Leinster, while prop Cian Healy was set to make his 100th appearance for the province after being named among the replacements.
Leinster were off and running inside four minutes, slicing open Gloucester’s defence from a short-range lineout as Larmour touched down unchallenged, with Byrne’s conversion making it 7-0.
Gloucester struggled to cope in the face of such pace and intensity and matters deteriorated for them midway through a one-sided opening quarter.
Atkinson was yellow-carded by French referee Pierre Brousset for a technical infringement and Leinster ran the resulting penalty, creating a try for Ala’alatoa that Byrne converted.
Gloucester needed a response and it arrived 15 minutes before half time when they drove a lineout to within sight of Leinster’s line.
Although Gloucester’s forwards could not get the ball down, Brousset decided that Leinster had illegally pulled the maul down, awarding a penalty try and yellow-carding visiting prop Andrew Porter.
But just when Gloucester thought they might be back in the contest, Leinster once again showed a ruthless edge off first-phase possession, with scrum-half Jamison Gibson Park’s pass finding Osborne, who scored following a jinking 20-metre run.
Byrne converted and Leinster secured a bonus-point on the stroke of half time with their fourth try.
It was another close-range effort with an emphasis power as Doris touched down and Byrne’s conversion opened up a 21-point interval advantage.
Leinster showed no sign of slowing up after the break and it took just six minutes for them to score a fifth try, courtesy of Keenan’s impressive finish when he rounded opposite number George Barton.
Gloucester, to their credit, refused to throw in the towel and they gained a second penalty try 15 minutes from time after Doris was sin-binned for illegally pulling down a close-range maul.
But Leinster finished strongly and current world player of the year Van der Flier collected a 71st-minute touchdown and Kelleher also crossed, completing an impressive afternoon’s work, with Gloucester ending the match a player down after fly-half Santiago Carreras was yellow-carded for a deliberate knock-on.
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