Needing at least a win if they were to secure a place in the quarter-finals of the second-tier Amlin Challenge Cup, the Sharks fell to a 19-13 defeat in their final Heineken Cup Pool Five game as group rivals Cardiff Blues advanced courtesy of their 45-20 victory at Harlequins.
Sale were forced to play 20 minutes of the game with 14 men, after number eight Sisa Koyamaibole and second row Chris Jones were sin-binned during the first half.
Koyamaibole was yellow-carded for a foolish off the ball charge on Frederic Michalak, while Jones was adjudged to have come in from the side at a ruck after a period of sustained Toulouse pressure.
And Jones admitted those 10-minute periods had hurt his side.
“I have no qualms about Sisa’s yellow card,” he said. “I thought Chris Jones’ card was a bit harsh, but we need to play the game on the edge but not over the edge. It cost us today, to play 20 minutes against a great side like Toulouse means they are going to find a weakness.
“That 10 minutes just after half-time killed us. That’s what Toulouse can do to you and we have a lot to learn.”
The scores had been tied at 6-6 at the break as fly-half Charlie Hodgson knocked over two penalties for the hosts, with opposite number Jean-Baptiste Elissalde kicking two drop goals for the visitors.
But hooker Virgile Lacombe went over for Guy Noves’ side with Elissalde adding the conversion and two penalties, while Mathew Tait scored a superb late try for Sale.
Jones felt he could take plenty of positives from his side’s performance against the three-time European champions. He said: “There were lots of positives although ultimately we are disappointed.
“I felt in the last 10 minutes we might have a good chance of victory.
“We also started brightly and looked good at the tackle area, but discipline let us down. Alain Rolland is a fine referee and we have to learn to manage referees better in this competition, although I felt he didn’t give us a lot in the second half. Having said that, we scored a good try and got in some good areas.”
The former Wales captain also believes Toulouse are favourites to go on and lift the Heineken Cup in Paris in May.
He said: “Toulouse have to be favourites with a home quarter-final and a final in Paris. They certainly have the squad to be able to win this.”
Northampton are the only English side to reach the quarter-finals of the competition, and Jones believes the current salary cap rules are making it hard for Guinness Premiership clubs to compete when it comes to attracting players.
“There has to be an even playing field,” he said. “I am in the market for players and I know what they cost. We can’t compete with Ospreys, the French clubs and even the (Cardiff) Blues may have a bigger budget than us.
“That is not an excuse, but it might be a factor going forward. If one country has a cap of £7million and we have £4m and it is not as well policed as it could be in some areas it’s going to be the way.
“But it’s not all about the money and if you have a good group of players at your club you can be competitive, otherwise Chelsea would win the Premier League every year wouldn’t they.”
Sale – Tries: M. Tait. Cons: Hodgson. Pens: Hodgson 2.
Toulouse – Tries: Lacombe. Cons: Elissalde. Pens: Elissalde 2. Drop Goals: Elissalde 2.
SALE: MacLeod, Cueto, M. Tait, Kennedy, Doherty, Hodgson, Wigglesworth, E. Roberts, Schwalger, Halsall, C. Jones, Schofield, Gaskell, Abraham, Koyamailbole, Tuilagi.
Replacements: Tuilagi for Kennedy (49), Leck for Wigglesworth (73), M. Jones for Schwalger (73), Cox for C. Jones (69), Fearns for Abraham (20), Ripol for Tuilagi (76).
TOULOUSE: Poitrenaud, Clerc, David, Jauzion, Heymans, Elissalde, Michalak, Poux, Lacombe, Lecouls, Maestri, Albacete, Lamboley, Dustautoir, Picamoles.
Replacements: Fritz for David (66), Kelleher for Michalak (61), Servat for Poux (66), Montes for Lacombe (66), Human for Lecouls (40), Bouilhou for Maestri (60), Sowerby for Lamboley (66), Medard for Picamoles (73).
Referee: Alain Rolland (Ireland).