A tenacious battle between two clubs bubbling just under the Premiership's play-off places ended with recriminations against the referee and intrigue over the future of London Irish's England full-back, Delon Armitage.
The lead changed hands six times in the second half, but finished in Irish's favour when Adrian Jarvis kicked a 76th-minute penalty from about 30 metres' distance on the diagonal. Jarvis, formerly of Harlequins, Bristol and Leeds, is not Irish's regular kicker – Tom Homer, the first choice, had been substituted with a tweaked groin just after the hour – but the fly-half had already shown his nerve with a 40-metre kick in the 66th minute when there were shouts not a million miles away from the home coaches' seats to give the honour to centre, Steve Shingler.
This is the same Shingler whose international eligibility is being wrangled over by Wales and Scotland, with the International Rugby Board due to rule on it this week. But there were more immediate arguments over the scrum offence that gave Jarvis his second shot at the posts, after Nick Macleod's fourth penalty had put Sale 19-18 up.
Irish had established a good nudge on the loosehead side occupied by their England international Alex Corbisiero to force the Sale scrum to retreat and be skewed clockwise. The referee Wayne Barnes's arm rocketed skywards: a decision the home head coach Toby Booth saw as quite correct. "You can clearly see we were going forward and Sale walked round," said Booth. "You reward a dominant scrum."
But Booth's opposite number, the Sale executive director of sport (soon to be chief executive) Steve Diamond could not have disagreed more. "The wheel went out of the Premiership game 10 years ago," said Diamond. "It should have been a reset not a penalty." He then accused Barnes, one of the world's highest-ranked officials, of turning up late (50 minutes before kick-off) and being "flustered for some reason, maybe with the traffic... He certainly didn't referee to our liking."
Diamond, a former hooker, did however agree with Barnes's ruling of a yellow card (no more) for David Paice's tackle on Andy Powell after 49 minutes. Powell was upended but crucially Paice, the Irish hooker, appeared to keep hold of the No.8 as Powell landed on his arm and back. The last thing Irish needed, given their long list of injuries, was to be any more short-handed but they survived Paice's absence no worse for wear on the scoreboard, with Macleod and Homer kicking a penalty each in that 10 minutes though Homer had also suffered his third miss.
During the opening 10 minutes there was only one side in it and they weren't wearing green. With Richie Vernon punching up the middle, Sale had a try by Rob Miller and a conversion and penalty by Macleod to lead 10-0.
There were seven Welshmen on the field though the most authentically Welsh name belonged to the former All Black forward Bryn Evans whose try converted by Homer on 11 minutes established a long period of London Irish dominance. Darren Allinson's tap-and-go was held, but Armitage organised the recycling and fed Jarvis whose pass was moved on by Shingler to Evans. Amid the cosmopolitan personnel – we even had the Premiership's first Moldovan, Vadim Cobilas, Sale's tighthead replacement – Armitage showed why he is arguably England's finest full-back talent.
But after four disciplinary bans in 2011, and with a reported offer from Toulon to move to France next season, he was said by Booth to be viewing his inclusion or otherwise in the England squad this Wednesday as a sign of whether to stay or go.
Armitage's class was needed with the backs Dan Bowden, Sailosi Tagicakibau, Jonathan Joseph, Joe Ansbro and Shontayne Hape all missing for Irish. The forwards were in better nick and a Sale scrum conceded a turnover after 23 minutes that ended with Shingler's deft grubber in behind Tom Brady for Irish's second try by Topsy Ojo.
Macleod's final penalty came when Homer's replacement Marland Yarde flew into a tackle and was pinned on the wrong side. But Jarvis took the lead back and Irish finished with Yarde timing a blitzing tackle on Miller just right, and a rip of the ball by Evans.
Scorers: London Irish: Tries: Evans, Ojo; Conversion: Homer; Penalties: Homer, Jarvis 2.
Sale Sharks: Try: Miller; Conversion: Macleod; Penalties: Macleod 4.
London Irish: D Armitage; T Ojo (A Thompstone, 77), J Spratt, S Shingler, T Homer (M Yarde, 61); A Jarvis, D Allinson; C Dermody (capt, A Corbisiero, 61), D Paice, P Ion (F Rautenbach, 61), N Kennedy (B Casey, 77), M Garvey, B Evans, J Gibson (D Sisi, 17), A Gray (J Buckland, 58-59).
Sale: R Miller; T Brady, J Leota, S Tuitupou (capt), J Tuculet; N Macleod, D Peel (C Willis, 72); A Dickinson, M Jones, T Buckley (V Cobilas, 55), F McKenzie, J Gaskell (K Myall, 47), R Vernon, O Auva'a, A Powell (M Easter, 59).
Referee: W Barnes (London).