True, defeats at London Irish, Bath and Harlequins were only by a single score. Moreover, as Rob Andrew likes to remind us, in two of those Newcastle outscored the opposition in tries. But for those losses, Newcastle would be sharing top billing with Leicester and Northampton, with the retention of the title as much a reality as a dream.
It is much nearer the truth to say that Newcastle are nowhere near the force of last season. Their pack lacks the unyeilding hardness of Dean Ryan or the pace and deftness of Pat Lam. But against a Sale eight who have struggled to impose themselves throughout a disappointing campaign, they were confronted by no significant threat; even when the Sale number eight, Dion O'Cuinneagain, scored a breathtaking try to level the scores at 20-20, wth 14 minutes remaining.
If Newcastle have found it difficult to win away from Tyneside, Sale have had difficulty winning anywhere. This was their fifth successive league defeat; three of which have been in Manchester. Their pack may have all the substance of yoghurt, but they possess pace in abundance, which is why the England coach, Clive Woodward, was at Heywood Road to take a closer look at their teenage winger, Steve Hanley.
While the strapping Hanley, 6ft 3in, and 16 stone, ensured that Woodward's journey was not wasted by scoring a try in first-half stoppage time, it was two other England hopefuls, Tony Underwood and Jonny Wilkinson, who turned the match.
It was delicately balanced at 13-13, after Steve Davidson had scored Sale's second try. Underwood was then apparently kicked at a ruck, which may lead Newcastle to take further action, once the have studied the video. The Newcastle coach, Steve Bates, said afterwards: "I had a good view of the incident and Tony was clearly stamped on the head several times."
If Underwood was aggrieved at his treatment, which required three stitches, he then wounded Sale where it hurts most, by intercepting a loose pass from Chris Yates to score by the posts. Wilkinson converted that, as he did George Graham's try, to add to two earlier penalties, before delivering the knock-out blow after O'Cuinneagain's intervention.
In a frenetic finish, Wilkinson struck a 45-metre penalty and Hugh Vyvyan grabbed a debut try to keep the championship dream alive.
Sale: Tries Davidson, O'Cuinneagain, Hanley. Conversion: Howarth. Penalty: Howarth. Newcastle: Tries: Graham, Underwood, Vyvyan. Conversions Wilkinson 2; Penalties Wilkinson 3.
Sale: S Howarth; S Davidson, B-J Mather, C Yates (M Moore, 79), S. Hanley; J Baxendell, R Smith; P Winstanley (D Williamson, 64), P Greening, D Bell, S Raiwalui, C Murphy, P Anglesea (capt), A Sanderson, D O'Cuinneagain.
Newcastle: P Massey; J Naylor(A Underwood, h-t), M Shaw, J Wilkinson, V Tuigamala; R Andrew, G Armstrong (capt); G Graham, R Nesdale, M Hurter, D Weir, H Vyvyan, R Arnold (I Peel, 78), J Cartmel (P Walton, 53), R Beattie.
Referee: G Warren (Bristol).Reuse content