Leicester’s new England call-up Mike Williams finds no way through Sale’s centres. Photograph: Alex Livesey/Getty Images
They may have lost their star player, Danny Cipriani, in the off-season, but Sale have served notice they intend to maintain their position mixing it with the big boys, a contender for Europe at the very least. Without anyone particularly stamping their authority on the match, à la Cipriani, they notched up a bonus-point win over Leicester and were well worth it.
The Tigers’ engine continues to stutter. When they are good, they are very good, as evidenced by the three excellent tries they scored themselves, but if they want to maintain their customary lofty position in this league, now more competitive than in their glory years, a greater attention to the essentials, like defence at the ruck, will be required.
The rest of us, though, need not concern ourselves with such detail. This was a game to be enjoyed from start to finish, surging this way and that with a pleasing number of shifts in momentum. First Sale, with a try inside seven minutes, then Leicester with a pair of excellent tries around the 10-minute mark, then Sale again, scoring tries number four and five by the half-hour. Neither director of rugby will have particularly enjoyed it, such is the premium placed these days on defence; Leicester’s proving particularly porous at the ruck.
If you were after a lively game of rugby, though, it was excellent fare. All four wings enjoyed ball in hand. Of the new-ish England squad members, Ellis Genge made hay in the loose while Josh Beaumont, Sale’s captain, shaped matters with authority in the heart of the action.
It was a more familiar face to observers of international rugby, though, who kicked things off. Mike Phillips waltzed clean through a Leicester ruck after a lively incursion from the blindside wing by Paolo Odogwu for his first try in a Sale shirt. Leicester had looked more than a little careless at that point, missing a penalty for touch and spilling the ball on their next attack. But their attack combined sweetly when Peter Betham claimed a brace in four minutes. Ed Slater stole a Sale lineout and Betham exchanged passes with Brendon O’Connor out wide for a fine score, all but equalled in its artistic merit by his next three minutes later. Genge made a big dent and O’Connor turned it inside for another scoring pass to Betham, this one requiring the Aussie to beat two defenders in his run to the posts.
Genge and his mates enjoyed the edge at the scrum, thus extending Leicester’s lead to 10 points with an Owen Williams penalty. Then it was Sale’s turn again.
Will Addison landed a penalty, before an Odogwu run from the blindside was picked out by Beaumont at the tail of a lineout. And the home team retook the lead on the half-hour with a try by Johnny Leota, after a couple of interventions from their other wing. Nev Edwards cut inside Graham Kitchener and Dan Cole and, after a half-break by AJ MacGinty, broke past some more, before Leota went clean through another ruck for the score.
A couple of Leicester penalties either side of half-time, the first for another offence at the scrum, which was by now causing Steve Diamond, Sale’s director of rugby, much angst, brought Leicester to within one point. Which meant it was Sale’s turn again.
They may have suffered at the scrum, but the referee liked the look of their rolling maul. He awarded them three penalties in succession but it was not until he awarded a scrum, ironically enough, that they finished the job. Halani Aulika, just on for Kieron Longbottom, drive over, through a ruck again, for Sale’s bonus-point try. They had quarter of a match to guard against any further swings in momentum.
No chance. Leicester came again. Sale will want to know why it took only one offence at a lineout and drive before the referee showed a yellow card, in light of the three Leicester offences he had let go a little earlier, but Aulika was sent to the bin for collapsing Leicester’s maul just the once. Leicester could not drive the next attempt over but, when they sent the ball wide, Adam Thompstone finished brilliantly out of a two-man tackle. Williams converted from the touchline to pull Leicester back to within one point with 10 minutes remaining.
Cue another shift of momentum. Addison landed his second penalty with five minutes remaining, for a faultless display from the tee, and Sale’s driving lineouts ensured the momentum shifts would end there.