Bristol Bears fell to a second loss of the season to Sale Sharks at the AJ Bell Stadium, going down 22-12.
The defeat, just Bristol’s fourth all season in the league comes after the Sharks beat the Bears back in February at Ashton Gate.
The Bears dominated the opening period with 78% of the possession and 83% of the territory, but they couldn’t cross the try-line as Sale’s defence held strong and the score remained 0-0 at the break.
Ben Earl crossed just five minutes into the second half for an electric Bears score, but the introduction of a certain Manu Tuilagi for Sale flipped the momentum of the game.
Semi Radradra saw yellow for a high shot on Raffi Quirke, and with the Bears down to 14 Sale capitalised crossing for two tries through Dan and Rob du Preez.
Radradra returned but Sale still added a third from a driving maul.
Pat Lam’s side pushed for a comeback and were in touching distance of a bonus point when Ioan Lloyd crossed in the corner and Callum Sheedy nailed the touchline conversion.
But an AJ MacGinty penalty secured the Bears fate as they came away from Manchester with nothing.
Rugby reporter Sam Bytheway analyses the individual displays from the AJ Bell:
15. Charles Piutau – 7
I’ve so often raved about how simple Charles Piutau makes it look with ball in hand, but against an aggressive Sale defensive line the former All Black struggled to make serious metres.
In the first half as the Bears dominated both possession and territory, Piutau tried his hardest to hassle and harry the Sale defence to no avail.
Despite a difficult evening for Piutau he still contributed to a moment of magic when Ben Earl crossed in the far corner early in the second period.
14. Luke Morahan – N/A
Luke Morahan lasted less than two minutes on the AJ Bell pitch before he was removed for an HIA after a big collision with hooker Akker van der Merwe, which he subsequently failed with Ioan Lloyd remaining on the pitch.
13. Semi Radradra – 6
The game at the AJ Bell seemed to turn on one key moment and unfortunately for Semi Radradra that was his yellow card.
Radradra was sent to the bin for a high shot on Raffi Quirke as the young nine raced towards the line, and with the Fijian off the pitch Sale capitalised with two tries and the momentum had changed.
The Fijian also missed four tackles on a rare off day.
Despite the negatives, Radradra still managed to make a team-high 55 metres from nine carries and also was part of the electric move to assist Ben Earl. Those attacking stats could also go up upon review.
Let’s hope the citing board don’t end his season early.
12. Piers O’Conor – 5
It wasn’t the performance we have come to expect from Piers O’Conor on his return to a Bears shirt after some time out of the side.
From seven carries O’Conor failed to make an attacking metre as he struggled against that aggressive Sale defence.
As well as a poor day in attack the former Wasps man struggled in defence, missing five tackles – almost half of those he attempted.
Sadly he typified Bristol backs’ attempt to dance their way around the wall of blue smashing them backwards.
11. Max Malins – 7
It wasn’t a particularly great day to be a Bristol Bears back three player as the ball rarely touched Max Malins’ hands throughout the 80 minutes.
Despite this the Saracens loanee still managed to beat three defenders and make 23 metres from his minimal amount of carries.
Malins’ game seemed to revolve more around his defensive work with the England international heavily targeted by the Sale attack but he fronted up, missing just one tackle.
10. Callum Sheedy – 6
It was a rare off day for Callum Sheedy in attack, as against an aggressive Sale defence he struggled to get his backline ticking.
Sheedy managed to make just one carry as he was targeted from the offset of the game and was given no time to pull the strings as he would have wanted.
When your fly-half isn’t ticking going forward then it is always going to be a struggle.
9. Andy Uren – 6
Like Callum Sheedy outside him, it was a difficult day for Andy Uren as he was nullified by Sale’s dynamic and dogged forward pack.
Uren struggled to find his side quick ball which will of allowed the Bears to capitalise on the significant amount of pressure and possession they had in the opening period.
As well as struggling to get going, a number of the scrum-half’s box kicks seemed to go that inch too far for a chaser to reach.
A difficult day overall for the Bristol half-backs.
1. Jake Woolmore – 7
In a short but sharp 50 minute stint Jake Woolmore consistently had the upper hand at scrum-time against international opposition in Oosthuizen.
Woolmore also carried hard at close range and fronted up defensively, failing to miss a tackle.
2. Jake Kerr – 7
On his second start in a Bears shirt, Jake Kerr continued where he left off against Gloucester last time out with another strong performance.
Kerr’s line-out was solid, he carried aggressively and brought the Bears strong momentum and like the rest of his front row colleagues, he was defensively sound.
He was inches from crossing for a try in the first half after breaking off a maul which would have given Bristol reward for their dominance.
3. Kyle Sinckler – 8
In his 54 minutes on the pitch, it’s safe to say that the Bears were on top as Kyle Sinckler continued his staggering form since his Lions omission.
Sinckler dominated in the scrum once again and also carried hard and more frequently then seen from him in recent times.
The England’s prop desire is so noticeable when you focus on him for any amount of time, whether it’s a wry smile when he gets jeered by the crowd or following every inch of action, even when he’s off the field.
4. Dave Attwood – 6
Like many of the Bears’ key cogs, it was a relatively poor day at the office by Dave Attwood’s highest of standards.
The former England second-row has been rightly heralded as one of the league’s best this season, but against Sale he struggled to find any significant momentum going forward barring one barnstorming run just before half time which ended Cobus Wiese’s game as he ran through the lock.
As well as lacking this go forward, Attwood didn’t seem his usual nuisance self at both the tackle and breakdown as he made just one tackle throughout the game.
5. Chris Vui (C) – 8
In the absence of captain Steven Luatua, it was always going to be a tough ask for Chris Vui to step into his shoes but he did an admirable job.
The Samoan second-row seemed to be everywhere in defence as he consistently and bravely put his body in the way of the oncoming Sale defence.
In total, Vui made 12 tackles – missing just one as he led his side well, despite the defeat and game up with a couple of key turnovers.
6. Fitz Harding – 8
Fitz Harding continues to excel in a Bristol Bears shirt as he grows and grows as a professional player.
In a first half that wasn’t exactly littered with memorable moments my notes were dominated by Harding, with the former Durham student being a thorn in the Sale side at both the ruck and the maul.
Alongside his breakdown display, Harding was defensively outstanding making a team-high 14 tackles without missing one as he put his body on the line.
If he continues to grow at this pace, perhaps a England ‘A’ call-up isn’t far away.
7. Ben Earl – 8
It seemed at times on the AJ Bell pitch that Ben Earl was trying to drag the Bears over the try-line on his own with a dogged display.
Earl was rewarded for his efforts with that exceptional score early in the second half which he finished like a cultured back.
But as well as the try the Saracens loanee defended to the highest quality, including a try-saving tackle late in the first half.
8. Nathan Hughes – 7
When Nathan Hughes trudged off the pitch with ten minutes to go you could see that he had sapped every drop of energy out of him with that performance.
Hughes was strong in the carry, strong in the tackle and also determined at the breakdown but it just never seemed to go his way.
The former Wasps man seemed to have numerous bounces of the ball or decisions go against him but the fight and desire were there until the moment he left the pitch.
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16. Harry Thacker (on for Kerr 55‘) – 7
17. Yann Thomas (on for Woolmore 50‘) – 8
18. Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro (on for Sinckler 55‘) – 6
19. Ed Holmes (on for Attwood 65‘) – 6
20. Jake Heenan (on for Hughes 70‘) – 7
21. Tom Kessell (Unused) – N/A
22. Ioan Lloyd (on for Morahan 2‘) – 8
23. Siale Piutau (Unused) – N/A
I’m certain that Pat Lam won’t have been expecting a 78 minute performance from Ioan Lloyd against the Sharks, but the Welshmen was top class as he came on for Luke Morahan in the opening minutes.
Lloyd hassled and harried throughout and was rewarded for his performance with a try in the closing stages which he finished well.
One of the Bears other early subs Yann Thomas also put in a high quality performance as the loosehead prop made a staggering 12 carries from the bench.
Elsewhere it was great to see Harry Thacker return to the pitch for the first time this season after injury, alongside Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro who also returned.
The other two used subs were Ed Holmes and Jake Heenan who despite playing just the last 10 minutes made a strong impact.