Martin Johnson, the England manager, travelled to an arctic Edgeley Park last night and is likely to have left Stockport with not only frostbite but the growing impression Mark Cueto deserves an international recall after his try helped Sale to a cantankerous victory over the Guinness Premiership leaders.
Johnson is yet to rubber stamp his squad for the Six Nations which begins next month, and the recent resurgence of Cueto and fellow Elite Squad exile Charlie Hodgson, plus the attendance of the exciting Steffon Armitage for London Irish, was enough to bring him and his management team northwards for the evening.
Of that trio, Cueto was the most influential, scoring his sixth league try of the season and although he has not played for England since the World Cup final in October 2007, he must be confident Johnson will come calling in the next week to bring him back to the fold.
"For the last three months, he has been free of injury and he is sharp and he is back," Sale's director of rugby Philippe Saint-André said. "You need to ask them [England] not me but he is back to his best."
Hodgson gave Sale the lead via a penalty in a niggly start which saw Sébastien Chabal wade into the Exiles substitute bench to make his feelings known after he was offended in one way or another and that set the tone for the match.
However, any hopes of enthralling rugby were soon dashed as both sides opted for the now depressingly familiar tactic of rugby ping-pong, kicking from end-to-end as they sought to find chinks in each other's armoury.
None could be found until Topsy Ojo brought some thankful illumination by making the most of an overlap to cross Sale's line untouched on 25 minutes.
Hodgson immediately missed a penalty from dead infront but did slot a drop-kick on the half-hour to help Sale regain the lead before a Shane Geraghty penalty meant Irish ended the first half marginally infront.
After another Hodgson penalty on 50 minutes, Cueto then made his mark, charging over from 20 metres out before being promptly sent to the sin-bin along with David Paice for some first-rate handbags. They weren't the only ones: Sale's Dean Schofield and Bob Casey of Irish also went at it during a lively contest.
It was all happening. No sooner had the scrummaging behemoth Andrew Sheridan been introduced by Sale than Irish's Alex Corbisiero disappeared back to the bench. It prompted a switch to non-contested scrums and although Corbisiero's limp looked convincing, it added further needle to what had become a bruising contest.
Sale looked home and dry until Irish then launched a Mike Catt-inspired assault in injury time but the home side's defence somehow held firm under some crushing pressure to claim the victory.
Sale: Tries Cueto; Penalties Hodgson 2; Drop Goal Hodgson. London Irish: Try Ojo; Penalty Geraghty.
Sale: Cueto; Bell, Tuilagi (Tait 50mins), McAlister, Doherty, Hodgson, Peel (Wigglesworth 78) Faure (Sheridan 58), Mark Jones (Abraham 42), Roberts, Chabal, Schofield (Cockbain 55), Chris Jones, Briggs, Fernandez Lobbe (capt).
London Irish: Hewat; Ojo, Seveali'i (Catt 72), Mapusua, Homer, Geraghty, Hodgson; Dermody, Coetzee (Paice 40; Johnson 60), Lea'aetoa (Corbisiero 54), Hudson (Roche 54), Casey (capt), Danaher (Thorpe 71), Armitage, Hala'Ufia.
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