Record breaker: Stade Toulouse
winger Vincent Clerc
Photo: Michael Paler
Stade Toulousain 36 (24) Sale Sharks 17 (3)
Three-time champions Stade Toulousain turned on the style as they ran in five tries to beat a weakened Sale Sharks 36-17 in their opening Pool 5 match.
The south-west giants may have struggled to find top gear so far in the league but Stade love the challenge of Europe’s premier club competition and sent a clear message of intent about their Heineken Cup aspirations.
Heineken Cup Pools & Fixtures
Last season’s disappointing quarter-final exit to Cardiff Blues cut deep, and Guy Noves' men started with rare intent as they sought to make amends in front of a 28,534-strong crowd ready to toast their heroes.
They scored three tries during a dominant first-half and could have added a hatful more had they not stepped off the gas once they had secured the bonus point in the opening minute after the break.
Two late tries from Sale in the dying minutes - including a first for former Brive and England winger Ben Cohen - gave the gallant visitors a modicum of consolation, but in the truth the scoreline flattered their efforts as they struggled to contain the bullish home side.
It took all of 113 seconds for Stade to open their account as quick line-out ball provided fly-half Jean-Baptiste Elissalde with an early opportunity to showcase his out-of-hand kicking, executing a perfect cross-field effort that landed sumptuously in Cedric Heymans’ eager palms wide out of the left. The French winger quickly off-loaded inside for full-back Maxime Médard to power over in the corner, with Elissalde adding the conversion to the delight of the massed ranks of ‘rouge et noir’ supporters.
Nick Macleod’s seventh-minute penalty hinted that Sale could yet make a game of it, but Stade soon reasserted their dominance, spoiling the visitors’ fragile line ball and showing a typical willingness to run at every opportunity. Their slick handling and off-loading dazzled the Sale defence and try number two duly arrived after 11 minutes when Vincent Clerc touched down in the right corner following another fluid break, this time sparked by centres Florian Fritz and Yannick Jauzion. Clerc’s effort took him level with Dafydd James’ Heineken Cup record of 29 tries, and Elissalde once more confirmed his accuracy by slotting from the touchline.
Toulouse continued to power forward, urged on by the home drums as they showcased their superb attacking skills. Sale somehow held out for a further 10 minutes as the pressure mounted before another example of individual brilliance from Elissalde teed up Clerc for his second try of the match.
Stade were camped down in the left hand corner at the time, just five metres short of the Sale try line, but rather than pile through Elissalde spotted Clerc wide out on the right touchline and executed another inch-perfect cross-pitch kick that looped over the stranded Cohen and straight into Clerc’s hands for a simple touch down.
It was exhibition stuff from the home side and brought a cacophony of appreciative noise from the stands.
Elissalde again added the extras from the touchline, adding to a more regulation penalty minutes earlier as Stade opened up a 24-3 advantage after just half an hour.
They powered on in search of try number four – and the bonus point – but Sale managed to hold out until half-time as they battled to prevent the hosts running amok.
Yves Donguy replaced Heymans at half-time but if the Manchester outfit thought Stade were easing off they were sadly mistaken as the powerful winger duly touched down in the left-hand corner just 42 seconds after entering the fray. Elissalde finally missed a kick – shaving the posts with yet another touchline effort – paving the way for head coach Guy Noves to bring on a raft of substitutions as he sought to rest players ahead of next weekend’s trip to Harlequins.
The mass change of personnel momentarily disrupted the home side’s flow but Donguy doubled up on 66 minutes after quick-thinking scrum-half Byron Kelleher chipped ahead from the base of a ruck to allow the winger a clear run-in, with replacement fly-half Frédéric Michalak picking up where Elissalde left off by landing the touchline conversion.
The hosts understandably lost their focus somewhat after that and Sale duly enjoyed their best period as they scrambled to get some sort of late consolation. Lock Rob O’Donnell powered over from close in as they finally managed a try in the 75th minute, and Cohen ended the game by scooting down the left wing for another opportunistic score. Bizarrely, it was only the third try in his past three seasons.
But don’t be fooled by the 36-17 scoreline. Stade did all they needed to do here as they began their campaign with a bonus-point home win against the Guinness Premiership outfit. Tougher hurdles will inevitably follow - including a mouth-watering double-header against Cardiff Blues in December - Noves and company will now refocus on Harlequins, who lost 20-6 in Wales on Saturday.
||Médard, Clerc (2), Donguy (2)
||Elissalde (3), Michalak