On the field, an English club lost – again – but off it was where those sifting for encouragement might find succour. Salford on Saturday was a soaking substitute for the seventh circle of hell, but, as is his wont, Jonny Wilkinson emerged from the gloaming to offer hope for the days and years to come. Having helped Toulon, the star-studded leaders of the Top 14 in France, themselves peopled by more than a smattering of Englishmen, to victory over Sale, Wilkinson revealed that he had not only watched the most recent reason for English optimism but had been mightily impressed.
"To win that game against New Zealand may just be the biggest turning point and most influential moment of the last five years," he said of the victory over the All Blacks. "I thought it was fantastic. For our World Cup winning team in 2003 there were several such key matches, where it was a question of breeding habits. It becomes less of a choice and more something you just get up and do, a bit more like breathing. You start to thrive on pressure. The challenging part of rugby becomes something you really enjoy. That's when you know a team is coming together."
Wilkinson was a study of perfection himself after the match, patiently dealing with the English inquisitors, before turning to the French and holding court in their language with seemingly equal facility. The very symbol of English supremacy on a rugby field continues to charm the world with his patience and humility.
Not that it was plain sailing for him on the field. He missed three kicks from the tee and horribly skewed a drop-goal attempt but Toulon came to Manchester in search of a win, and that is what they took away. Pool Six is all but wrapped up for them.
Opposite Wilkinson was Danny Cipriani, possibly the only English fly-half to compare with him when it comes to being talked about. But the younger man is still searching for his way to the sunny uplands. Here he was summoned from the bench to start this game, following an injury to Cameron Shepherd the day before, and he duly stepped in to play at least as well as his illustrious opponent.
But all of Sale's opponents were illustrious. "It's always good to play against the sort of quality Toulon have," Cipriani said. "You look at the team sheet. We were joking that Simon Shaw has more caps than the whole of our squad, and he's on the bench. But you wouldn't have been able to tell that, the way the boys came out. We showed we could do it for 60 or 70 minutes. They scored from a dropped ball. We clear those little things up and we're more in the fight."
After the carnage of the opening three months of this season, Sale are now desperately searching for some stability. They have finally settled on a coaching configuration, which features John Mitchell, the famously uncompromising New Zealander, at the helm. He officially arrived a couple of weeks ago and will hope that the spirit shown by his charges in this harsh defeat to a side with an obscene number of caps between them is a shape of things to come.
"I said before the match that it is a privilege to play against such a side," he said. "It's quite exceptional in world rugby to have a club side with an icon of South African rugby in Bakkies Botha, and an Australian icon in Matt Giteau, and Jonny Wilkinson. These are special days in a rugby life. I couldn't think of a better side to test the character of the group."
There will be further tests, taking in the more visceral challenge of surviving in the Premiership. For Sale, this match was a nothing-to-lose shy at a team of ludicrous resource but, if they can summon the same level of performance in the months to come, that Premiership survival will take care of itself.
Sale Miller; Jennings, Uys (Amesbury 70), Leota, Cueto; Cipriani, Cliff; Harrison (Lewis-Roberts 61), Taylor, Buckley (Cobilas 61), Gray, McKenzie (Myall 55), Gaskell, Seymour, Vernon (Powell 52).
Pens Cipriani 2.
Toulon D Armitage; Wulf, Bastareaud, Giteau, Smith; Wilkinson (capt), Michalak (Tillous-Borde 70); Sheridan (Chiocci 70), Bruno (Orioli 55), Hayman (Kubriashvili 76), Botha (Kennedy 69), Suta (Shaw 58), Lobbe, S Armitage, Masoe (Gunther 55)
Try Smith Pens Wilkinson 4.
Referee L Hodges (Wales) Attendance 9,154.
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