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Irish Independent
Irish Independent
Jonathan Bradley

Awful Ulster suffer first ever Champions Cup whitewash as Sale run riot

Stuart McCloskey is tackled by Dan du Preez of Sale. Image: Sportsfile.

Ulster were nilled for a first ever time in European competition on a shocking day for the northern province against Sale Sharks in the Heineken Champions Cup.

Having been unable to leave Belfast until some six hours before kick-off due to the cancellation of their planned flight the previous day, it was clear that the side were up against it from the off but, few would have predicted that such a disaster lay in store.

The Manchester-based side ran in six unanswered tries in a game just as one-sided as the final score suggested.

Unable to mount anything resembling a spell in possession and porous in defence, perhaps the most chastening aspect of this loss will be the realisation that things could have been even worse.

The first time Ulster have been held without a single point in any competition for over 14 years this loss is one that will surely shake all connected with the province, let alone in terms of what such a decisive hammering in their opening fixture means for their Champions Cup campaign.

There was only ever one side in this one, with Sale opening the scoring after 15 minutes.

Attacking off the line-out, it was Manu Tuilagi who made the initial ground. Arron Reed cut a scything line through the Ulster defence with the winger coming onto a delightful offload from Rob du Preez. Making the most of the linebreak, Tom Curry finished the move despite the tackle of his opposite number Nick Timoney.

While Sale missed the conversion, they thought they were in again only moments later but, after a lengthy TMO check, Mathieu Raynal adjudged Rob Herring had held up Akker van der Merwe's attempted finish.

It would prove just a temporary reprieve for Ulster with Sale straight back on the front foot off the goal-line drop-out and there would be no stopping Dan du Preez from close ranges.

Ulster were hanging on by their fingertips, unable to get a foothold in the game and simply trying to weather the storm, and a Rob du Preez penalty 13 minutes before the break made it 15-0 with the hosts good value for their lead.

With Ulster lacking accuracy on the occasions they did get on the ball, there was little respite. A 50:22 kick ensured Ulster were defending their line again but, minus Duane Vermeulen, who was sent to the sin bin for sacking a maul, the forwards again managed to hold up the Sale player driving for the line.

From the ensuing goal-line drop out, Tuilagi built up a head of steam but it would be his last action of the game after he came off worse in a collision with Andy Warwick. The English international would be the second centre in as many minutes to leave the field, following James Hume down the tunnel.

With five minutes before the break, and in the opposing '22' for the first time since the opening exchanges, Ulster went for broke as they knocked a kickable penalty to the corner but their seven forwards could make no headway at the subsequent maul. With Sale's pack winning a penalty from the resulting scrum, the chance for Ulster to get on the board was gone.

It was telling that, at 15-0, the half-time deficit felt kinder to Ulster than it did to Sale.

Sixty-seven seconds after the restart, the visitors were at least back to a full complement with Vermeulen's return but it did little to stem the tide, his first involvement coming in a scrum that ended with a penalty to Sale against the head.

When Sale's third try of the day arrived only eight minutes into the second-half, Ulster's race looked run, the scoreboard finally reflecting the English side's dominance of the encounter.

The sight of an Ulster attacking line-out swiftly turning into yet another scramble in defence as they were stripped in the maul summed up what was fast becoming a day nobody associated with Ulster will care to remember. And yet there was worse still to come.

After Tom Curtis went in untouched for an all-too-easy bonus-point try with 15 minutes remaining, the final quarter of an hour would be the most calamitous of an already disastrous day.

First a quick line-out went horribly wrong, with Sale reacting quicker to the loose ball for replacement winger Byron McGuigan to score, before with three minutes to go, Ulster were mercifully put out of their misery with Reed's breakaway score the sixth and last of the day.

Going back to the final minute of the first half against Leinster last week, Ulster have been outscored 74-7.

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