13 The Daily Telegraph Monday 31 August 2020 *** Brian Moore Munster beat 13-man Connacht to reach semi-finals of Pro14 Shrewd Sharks By Pippa Field Andrew Conway scored a brace of tries as Munster took advantage of two first-half red cards for Connacht to reach the Guinness Pro14 semi-finals thanks to a 49-12 bonuspoint win. Debutant Connacht No8 Abraham Papali’i was sent off for a 25th-minute high tackle on Conor Murray, and nine minutes later hooker Shane Delahunt saw red after leading with an elbow into CJ Stander’s neck. Munster punished Conor Oliver for being sent to the sin-bin early on with a seventh-minute Chris Cloete try and a penalty try before prop Jeremy Loughman added a third. Connacht replacement Bundee Aki replied to make it 21-7 at half-time. Tries from Tadhg Beirne, Conway (2) and James Cronin dwarfed a Jonny Murphy effort as Munster set up a last-four clash with Leinster on Friday. Fly-half Jason Tovey kicked 19 points to complement tries from Josh Adams and Jason Harries as finished the season with a 29-20 win over Dan Evans and Luke Morgan scored for Ospreys, who finish bottom of Conference B. Elsewhere beat 16-9. reflect Diamond spirit to punch above weight S teve Diamond was a chippy, easily riled and technically brilliant hooker. To see him retain almost all of his old character traits, as Sale Sharks director of rugby, warms the heart. He is not to everyone’s taste, but you cannot deny that the squad of players he has assembled are as good, if not better, than any in the club’s professional history. Sale did not restart the season on form, but these players are too good not to perform well and, when they click, they are a powerful unit. When you look at Sale you must bear in mind the environment in which the club operate, the context in which they have to fight for talent and support. Within 45 miles you have both the giant Manchester football clubs and Liverpool, Leeds United and Everton, not to mention several other Premier League and Championship clubs. There are hundreds of talented rugby players employed in rugby league and the famous clubs of Wigan, Warrington and St Helens are nearby. If you show sporting prowess as a youngster, which sport is most likely to attract you, given the riches and fame accorded by each? All this is before you consider the distractions of esports and other leisure pursuits. Despite this preponderance of competing sporting interests, since the Second World War the North has produced an average of around seven out of every 15 England players, despite having only a few top-class clubs. The reason is both a strength and weakness for rugby union. The North has a strong schools rugby system, mainly from its public schools, with a minority contribution from state schools such as Crossley Heath, Halifax, which I attended. Public schools can afford good coaches and have training facilities and pitches that produce players with good skill sets. On the other hand, the fact it is viewed as a posh sport, despite the best efforts of union’s development officers, is an impediment to its growth. Sufficient sporting talent is only the first of Sale’s problems. The fight for sponsorship and spectators is equally difficult because of its locale. The smaller and medium-sized companies have a greater variety of options for their sponsorship dollar and rugby clubs have to work harder than usual to pull in money. Since 2003, Sale have also had the problem of moving away from their long-standing home of Heywood Road and becoming an itinerant club. Playing in Salford, and now Eccles, has tested their supporters and, take it from me, the amount of traffic in these areas makes travelling to Friday-night games less than straightforward. Their planned move to Crossford Bridge, which would be only a couple of miles from their old ground, cannot come soon enough. It would transform the match-day experience for their fans. At present, there is a limit to what Sale can offer for their loyal supporters. It is difficult to be accurate, but such a move would likely add a substantial percentage to their average gate. If you look at the current squad, it is fair to say that there are many imported players, and another challenge for Diamond is to gradually alter the balance in favour of academy players who are good enough to deserve their places. At present it is more important for Sale to have on-field success, however their squad are constituted. They must maintain their present league position of second if they are to secure an advantageous draw in the play-offs. Once they are in the knockout stages, they know that they now have the experience of several World Cup finalists who know their way through sudden-death rugby. Exeter remain favourites to lift the title, but on their day Sale could surprise anyone. You cannot take their 40-7 drubbing of an under-strength Bristol team as definitive evidence of their credentials, but the streetwise nature of their work around the breakdown and their set-piece solidity were impressive. A back row of Tom and Ben Curry and Jean-Luc du Preez will compete with any of their league counterparts, and the presence of Denny Solomona and Manu Tuilagi out wide means that their counterattacking credentials are made out. As a final aside, you have to factor in Faf de Klerk, who was man of the match against the Bears. De Klerk’s all-round footballing brain and tenacity make him one of the ultimate big-occasion players and at scrum-half he influences the game so directly. England saw how difficult it can be to keep De Klerk quiet, and his contributions in attack, especially in exploiting opponents’ short-side defence, make him a player who can be the focus of Sale’s title aspirations. Cardiff Blues Ospreys. Benetton Zebre In the thick of it: Ben Curry prepares to support brother Tom against Bristol; (below) Steve Diamond is a spiky character
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