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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Robert Kitson at Ashton Gate

Ford and Tuilagi help Sale defeat Bristol to close in on home semi-final

Ben Curry celebrates scoring a try for Sale in their win over Bristol
Ben Curry celebrates scoring a try for Sale in their win over Bristol. Photograph: Steven Paston/PA

A fine all-round display from George Ford and a powerful contribution from Manu Tuilagi kept Sale firmly on course for a home semi-final in this season’s Gallagher Premiership. The Sharks have now guaranteed their participation in the last four and showed far too much physicality for a Bristol side whose playoff hopes are now effectively over.

Both Ford and Tuilagi have endured injury-disrupted seasons but the England pair appear to be running into some decent form as the campaign approaches its closing furlongs. The influential Ford contributed 21 points on a damp, cool evening while Tuilagi was a regular handful with and without the ball as the Bears endured a mostly frustrating evening.

It might have been even worse had Ellis Genge seen red rather than yellow after a head clash with his international teammate Tom Curry. Eventually the referee Luke Pearce found sufficient mitigation not to send Genge off but the England prop’s departure to the sin-bin was the signal for the Sharks to tighten their grip on an increasingly lop-sided contest.

By the end, courtesy of tries from Ben Curry, Jean-Luc du Preez and Gus Warr and Ford’s unerring boot, there could be no doubting Sale’s status as genuine contenders for silverware in the coming weeks. “We know we’re a good team and we’ve seen patches of it in games but that was a more complete performance,” said Alex Sanderson, their director of rugby. “Big players finding form at this stage of the season is crucial and they did tonight.”

There is certainly a growing assurance about the Sharks and their forward pack takes very few backward steps. With the Curry twins back in harness, Tuilagi on the brink of signing a new contract and Ford expertly calling the tactical shots, there are increasingly few weak links discernible.

The same could not be said of Bristol, despite a flying late score from Gabriel Ibitoye which massaged the final scoreline slightly. Their director of rugby, Pat Lam, suggested this week this had been among the toughest seasons he had known and a sixth defeat in their last seven fixtures against Sale duly yielded more pain. The Bears are poised to lose both Charles Piutau and Semi Radradra this summer which is not going to make next season any easier.

Heavy pre-match rain had ensured a greasy surface, making life awkward for both sides, but Ford’s goalkicking was impressive from the outset. The experienced England No 10 now keeps his head down for so long he barely even glances up at the posts but three well-struck first-half penalties flew straight and true to give the visitors a useful 9-3 lead.

George Ford kicks a penalty
George Ford produced an assured performance to steer Sale to victory. Photograph: Steven Paston/PA

The evening was about to take a further turn for the worse from the Bears’ perspective. First Ford popped over a neatly taken drop-goal to keep the scoreboard ticking over before a costly missed tackle in midfield by Max Lahiff allowed Sale’s captain Ben Curry to motor straight through the heart of the home defence to score unchallenged.

Ford’s conversion made it 19-6 and the margin might have been even greater without an excellent covering tackle from Magnus Bradbury on Tom O’Flaherty after Tuilagi had broken away down the left. When Tuilagi also flattened the unfortunate Joe Jenkins with a pile-driving tackle shortly afterwards it added to the sense of the big man relishing his work once again.

Bristol urgently needed a response and it arrived in the nick of time just before the interval. AJ MacGinty, once of Sale himself, floated a lovely cross-kick towards the right corner flag and his winger Siva Naulago did the rest. MacGinty’s angled conversion was similarly accurate and gave the Bears fresh hope.

It did not last long. The Sharks emerged with renewed purpose and another clinical attack saw Jono Ross surge towards the line before the hard-working Du Preez arrived to complete the job. A fourth Ford penalty helped widen the gap to 29-13 and when Genge was sin-binned in the 55th minute it made the Bears’ task even tougher. As several other sides have already discovered this season, the Sharks take some reeling in once they are ahead. Even if they do not ultimately claim this year’s title they look a team whose confidence is rising by the week.

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