Sale Sharks’ unbeaten home record this season was broken by French high-flyers Montpellier as Benoit Paillaugue’s boot proved the Aviva Premiership Rugby side’s downfall in the European Rugby Challenge Cup.
Sale entered the break 11-10 to the good through Tom Brady’s try and the boot of Danny Cipriani, after Paul Willemse’s pushover effort delivered on a promising Montpellier start.
Ultimately, this game was to be decided on the kicking tee and veteran scrum-half Paillaugue completed his haul of six penalties to push the visitors out of sight and into the semi-finals
The AJ Bell Stadium was on its feet after Sam James’ superb finish but Sale had left too much to do.
Montpellier travelled to Sale having bagged 27 points from their last six matches in the Top 14 – a record that any team in Europe would be proud of.
But Sharks could also boast of the fact that they are the only team in Europe to remain unbeaten at home in all competitions this season and the spirit that has got them there showed in the first half.
Indeed, they had to weather the early Montpellier storm after the away side won a turnover penalty and probed for weak spots deep in Sale’s own half.
The breakthrough never came and instead, Cipriani smashed the first three points onto the board after a Montpellier indiscretion at the ruck.
Five minutes later and the Top 14 contenders were ahead through a big push that saw Willemse surge through, and Paillaugue’s conversion improving the lead to four points.
With Francois Steyn at the controls, Sale – who approached the game off the back of victory over London Irish in Aviva Premiership Rugby – were on the backfoot again but this time nothing came of the attack.
That stop was to prove hugely important as Sharks were the beneficiaries of the next score. Unsurprisingly Cipriani was at the fulcrum sucking defenders in while combining with Nev Edwards.
And the finish was not bad either as Brady needed to muscle his way over with a number of bodies on his back to compete the job.
Cipriani’s conversion landed inches wide though with the momentum shifted, Sale would take a slender lead into half-time.
A five-metre lineout – after Anthony Tuitavake caught Edwards high – broke down, but in the 33rd minute Cipriani spliced the uprights when another penalty came his way.
Sale were then made to repel a maul after Montpellier opted to go for the corner and neither could the French side take advantage of a kickable penalty when TJ Ioane was pinged for a no-arms tackle.
But the 11-10 lead lasted just five minutes into the second half as the Montpellier set-piece continued to fire and this time Paillaugue’s penalty sneaked over the posts.
Replacement prop Eifion Lewis-Roberts then presented another opportunity for Paillaugue and with another swing of his boot, improved Montpellier’s lead to 16-11.
Sharks were certainly not out of it and the half-hour mark threatened to be a turning point – Montpellier lock Thibault Privat shown a yellow and Cipriani reducing the arrears to two.
However, indiscipline was to creep into Sale ranks as Paillaugue struck his fourth penalty of the night before Neil Briggs was sent to the sin bin within moments of coming on.
The reliable Paillaugue sent another penalty over the posts and now two scores apart at 22-14 with ten minutes to go, it looked like the end of Sale’s challenge.
Paillaugue added yet another three-pointer before stardust from James, a chip-and-chase try, gave Sale a glimmer of hope.
Cipriani’s conversion missed meant there were six points still in it with two minutes to go, and Sale fell short of the comeback.
Sale: Haley; Brady, James Leota (Jennings 77), Edwards; Cipriani, Stringer; Harrison (Lewis-Roberts 53), Taylor (Briggs 66), Cobilas (Mujati 61); Evans, Ostrikov (Mills 68); Neild, Lund (Seymour 12), Ioane.
Replacements: Mitchell, Ford
Montpellier: Mogg (Floch 66); Nagusa, Tuitavke (Ebersohn 61), Steyn, Fall; Lucas, Paillaugue; Nariashvili (Watremez 53), B Du Plessis (Ivaldi 71), J Du Plessis (Kubriashvili 53); Willemse, Privat (Watchou 71); Ouedraogo, Liebenberg (Galletier 57), Qera
Tries: Brady, James
Penalties: Cipriani 3
Penalties: Paillaugue 6