Nigel Owens blew his whistle, raised his arm, and Sale Sharks’ European Challenge Cup campaign was over. 

A match full of twist and turns came to an end as Tom Bristow was penalised at the scrum, La Rochelle booted the ball into touch and celebrated reaching St James’ Park.

They will take on Clermont while Sale are left to lick their wounds as their search for a first trophy since 2006 goes on.

You could point to the missed opportunities – the fluffed line-out in the second half when close to the French team’s line, the decision to take three points 11 minutes from the end when there was a chance for seven, or even that last gasp chance.

However, citing any of them would be ignoring the colossal effort that everyone in a Sale shirt put in.

Too often away from home this season Steve Diamond’s side have gone missing, the hammering at Franklin’s Gardens was unacceptable, as was the defeat at the hands of Worcester at Sixways.

But this was different, a 24-20 loss it may have been, but matches like this will only serve to improve this Sale team in the long run.

They fought a powerful French giant, in their own backyard, and almost came away with a victory.

On his return to the side, Chris Ashton was superb, rewarded with a poachers try to level the game at 17-17.

His fellow winger Denny Solomona was just as threatening, even if he was yellow-carded.

And then there was Jono Ross – the Sharks’ player of the season, for me. He carried as hard as ever and led the team excellently.

The Premiership is full of fantastic number eights, and Ross must now be considered one of the best.

You could have picked out anyone in a Sharks’ shirt, there were not many who let themselves down.

Still, this performance will only matter if it is taken into the final three matches of the season.

The West Country trio of Bath, Bristol, and Gloucester stand in Sale’s way of a place in the top six.

Two wins will likely be enough to secure European Champions Cup status.

If they do not make it, then ultimately this season must be considered a failure. With numerous internationals joining the squad next season, competing at the top tier of European Rugby is a necessity.

It will be close, no doubt about it, the battle arguably goes all the way down to Bristol in ninth.

But you just get the feeling there is something different about this Sale team, it is now down to the players to show it.

Photo Credit: Sale Sharks

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