Just a casual perusal of the team sheets beforehand ought to have given pause. Squad rotation is a fact of life at the moment, but it seemed fairly obvious that Sale were targeting this match more than Bristol were. Sure enough, the home team administered a hiding to the Bears severe enough to take them beyond their visitors into second place. Exeter march on at the top, but in the demure game of musical chairs developing behind them, it is Sale who take a turn as the least distant contenders.
Second versus third this may have been, but it did not feel a charged encounter. In these strange times of midweek matches the fielding of second teams is unavoidable. At the AJ Bell Stadium it was Bristol who fielded an unfamiliar XV, after their first team suffered a sobering home defeat in the week to Exeter’s extras. Sale recalled most of their heavy artillery, after their reserves had nicked a valuable win at Wasps, and the Sharks duly set about the visitors.
By the end of the first quarter they were scoring at more than a point a minute, three tries up and barely troubled at all by the visitors. There has been a cascade of penalties unleashed on the Premiership since the resumption, but the first half here only saw six awarded. After the general moan about the high penalty count of late, it would be ridiculous to grumble about a low one, but the penalty shortage did seem to reflect a generally anodyne atmosphere in the echoey stadium.
Not that Sale should mind about that. They had their first try after a mere five minutes. Akker van der Merwe tapped the game’s first penalty from close range, paving the way for Daniel du Preez to release Luke James to the line with a cheeky off-load out the back of his hand.
Bristol gave a first Premiership start to Tiff Eden at fly-half. It was an uncomfortable introduction, as he turned over possession twice, from each of which Sale scored.
He threw an ambitious pass to Max Malins in the 10th minute that just eluded the full-back, only for Denny Solomona to latch on to the loose ball and gallop home. A few minutes later, Van der Merwe, outstanding in a dominant Sale pack, snatched the ball from Eden at a tackle, and Sale scored the try of the match from it. Manu Tuilagi was soon breaking blind down the right, and Jean-Luc du Preez played the link man to send Faf de Klerk to the line.
Sale had the bonus point – and a 26-0 lead – on the half-hour, when their three-quarters combined sweetly on the counterattack to put Sam James away down the right. The contest, such as there had been one, was over.
Bristol had hinted at some quality, usually when involving Ben Earl, but they owed their sole score to a loose pass from Sale’s fly-half, AJ MacGinty. Alapati Leiua plucked it from the air and enjoyed a clear run to the posts.
It was a false dawn. Sale’s dominance only deepened in the second half. Bristol brought on the boy who has become their super sub, but not even Ioan Lloyd could conjure any magic in the face of Sale’s ugly forwards.
The penalty count started to uptick to a more familiar beat – and it was Sale now who won almost all of them.
Two more tries for the home side followed in the third quarter, each one feeling more like a training run than the last. Luke James was worked over by his brother and MacGinty from a line-out and drive, before Marland Yarde scored from De Klerk’s inside pass, straight from a line-out, Sale not even bothering with the drive this time.
The final quarter petered aptly away. Luke James was a fumble away from a hat-trick, but he didn’t seem to mind too much. Bristol ended the match pressing for a consolation, and when it never came they seemed to mind even less. This was not a high-stakes encounter. Both teams rumble on to matches that will matter more.