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Sale keep play-off hopes alive with gutsy win over Leicester

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Published Time: 11.05.2024 - 00:40:22 Modified Time: 11.05.2024 - 00:40:22

Sharks should earn semi-final spot with a win against Saracens next week, but Leicester’s hopes are now out of their hands Getty Images/Jan Kruger Sale Sharks 31 Leicester Tigers 22On one of the balmiest evenings of the year, Sale’s season could not have taken a brighter turn

Sharks should earn semi-final spot with a win against Saracens next week, but Leicester’s hopes are now out of their hands

: Getty Images/Jan Kruger

Sale Sharks 31 Leicester Tigers 22

On one of the balmiest evenings of the year, Sale’s season could not have taken a brighter turn. By defeating a struggling Leicester, the Sharks kept themselves fully in the mix for a Premiership play-off spot and a second successive appearance at Twickenham.

The bonus-point victory leaves Sale third but that will likely be transient after the rest of the weekend’s matches. Still, the Sharks know that a win on the road at Saracens next Saturday will likely earn a semi-final spot. No mean feat, of course – especially since Saracens might need to win to either secure a play-off place of their own or clinch a home semi-final – but these gutsy northerners did everything that could have been asked of them against a Tigers team full of quality but low on confidence.

The victory was convincing but the encouraging signs for Sale are that this was not even a vintage display. George Ford was not at his best, but even a Ford not at his best is still superior to most fly-halves, while an inaccurate Leicester side caused the hosts bother in the first half, but the Sharks’ back row and midfield were a class above. 

Ben Curry, captaining the hosts, could not have offered more for his side and Manu Tuilagi, against his boyhood club, delivered a virtuoso performance on what might be his final home game in English rugby.

For the last time ????Manu Tuilagi leaves the field in his final home game for @SaleSharksRugby ???? #GallagherPrem | #SALvLEI pic.twitter/B7bndAEH0V

In terms of the play-offs, Leicester’s season is over but the concern for the Tigers is Europe. Eight Premiership teams enter the Champions Cup but, should Gloucester defeat the South African Sharks in the Challenge Cup final in a fortnight’s time, the Cherry and Whites would earn an automatic place and only the top seven in the English table would qualify. 

That scenario puts Leicester in jeopardy, with this loss to Sale meaning the Tigers now must hope Exeter lose to Harlequins on Saturday and then beat the Chiefs themselves next weekend. Even then, everyone in Leicester might have to become fans of Durban this month.

Alex Sanderson, Sale’s director of rugby, demanded “knockout rugby” from his troops in the week but it was Leicester who delivered the early intent. Dan Cole, who turned 37 in the week, does not score many tries but even he would have struggled to butcher the chance from a few metres out. Dan Kelly combined intuitively in the build-up after Handre Pollard’s chip before the tighthead drove over.

It would not take long for Sale to respond, however, kick-starting the match’s tit-for-tat nature. From an ominous-looking line-out, the Sharks sent Tuilagi rampaging into the midfield of his boyhood club, flattening Ollie Hassell-Collins in the process. The wing would later receive a yellow card for his troubles – despite his bravery, he was upright and illegal in the tackle – but the platform allowed Gus Warr to snipe from the ensuing ruck and give Sale the lead.

Manu Tuilagi sets the platform and Gus Warr cashes in ????#GallagherPrem | #SALvLEI pic.twitter/Bm8ZPcE3od

Throughout the first half, the hosts kept their noses in front, although only one try was achieved with Hassell-Collins in the bin. It was fairly routine, however, with Ben Curry wrapping round the front of a line-out and sending Tommy Taylor, on his 150th appearance for the club, careering down the hooker channel to score unopposed. Ford’s conversion double gave Sale a healthy lead but the Tigers stayed in touch.

A Matt Scott intercept off the passing of Warr, as well as three points from the long-range boot of Jamie Shillcock, meant the visitors headed into the half-time break trailing by six points. There could – and would – have been less damage, too, had a calamitous Leicester line-out not set up another Sale try before the break. 

The Sharks’ handling to get the job done – Bevan Rodd, Curry, Tom O’Flaherty and Sam James combined elegantly – dazzled but Leicester’s players were left staring blankly at each other as to how they let the opportunity arise. In the end, full-back James finished neatly on his 237th appearance for the Sharks, and his final one in the North West before heading off to pastures new.

A try in his final home game for club legend Sam James ????You love to see it!#GallagherPrem | #SALvLEI pic.twitter/xsq4d8Jfsp

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