There are two possible explanations for Sale's 3-D performance – dire, depressing, desperate – before a 21,000-plus gate at the Madejski Stadium, neither of them remotely palatable. On the one hand, the northerners short-changed the paying public by saving the best of themselves for Friday night's alley-cat scrap with Worcester on home soil – or, given the current condition of an Edgeley Park surface every bit as dodgy as the rugby being played on it, home sand. On the other, they really are as bad as they made out yesterday, in which case they should save themselves further embarrassment by making a unilateral declaration of relegation.
Anyone with the slightest feeling for this grand club – and that "anyone" must include all those with a trace of the rugby spirit in their sporting make-up – will find the northerners' present plight difficult to stomach. Softer than putty up front, their survival chances are entirely dependant on the best and brightest of their backs, Charlie Hodgson and Mark Cueto, working like Trojans in defence and playing like Greek gods in attack. If they can do the first bit without the ball, as they at least attempted to show here, they cannot possibly do the second. Unless the Sale forwards stop impersonating horizontal featherweights and start fighting, a season among the second-raters beckons.
Kingsley Jones, the wildly enthusiastic Welshman who succeeded Philippe Saint-André as director of rugby at the end of last term, has been watching his natural exuberance dribble away for weeks now. Yesterday, the well was almost dry. "I hate this feeling," he said before boarding the private plane of the Sale chairman Brian Kennedy and strapping himself in for what promised to be a very long short-hop flight to Manchester. We'll be playing for our lives against Worcester and a Sunday-Friday turnaround is always difficult, so coming down here with our strongest available side was a high-risk approach. It was discussed by the board, who agreed that this was the best way to go. Unfortunately, we're going home with nothing to show for the trip except three injuries we can't afford. I suppose it's a case of our darkest fears being realised."
Dwayne Peel, a Lions Test scrum-half in 2005 and no one's idea of a fool half a decade on, lasted only half an hour before smashing his shoulder and leaving the field in a state best described as dazed and confused. Carl Fearns, the outstanding young back-row prospect, followed Peel into the medical room at half-time having pranged his knee. Both are doubtful for the Worcester game, as is the ever versatile Luke Abraham, who wrenched a joint in his shoulder shortly after taking the field as a replacement.
Yet it is the psychological fall-out from a game they could easily have lost by 50 points that could prove most damaging. A back division boasting six internationals and five Lions tourists might have asked London Irish a question or two had they been given the odd bullet to fire, but the home forwards were so superior in all departments – scrum, line-out, breakdown, off-loading, all-round physicality – that Hodgson, Cueto and company were left holding the rugby equivalent of a cheap water pistol. From the very start, they were backtracking in the face of John Rudd, Seilala Mapusua, George Stowers, Steffon Armitage and Chris Hala'ufia at their most hostile. As Jones admitted forlornly: "They're lethal on the front foot. They have such an ability to hurt you."
Hala'ufia, one of the scarier South Seas forwards plying his trade in the Premiership, had himself a jamboree, stampeding away from dominant set-pieces and freeing Armitage at will. The two of them were wholly responsible for tries on 44 and 52 minutes, while the latter was heavily implicated, as was his brother Delon, in the final score by Alex Corbisiero deep in stoppage time.
Corbisiero, fresh back from long-term injury, is quite something for a loose-head prop: certainly, his quick-thinking contribution to the Exiles' bonus-point try, completed by the full-back Peter Hewat, was precisely the kind of thing that gives new-age front-rowers a bad name among the cauliflower-faced nasties of yesteryear. How the visitors must crave a Corbisiero of their own. Not to put too fine a point on it, they would kill for anyone capable of holding his own at the set-piece. Phil Keith-Roach, the great scrummaging technician who helped knock England's World Cup-winning unit into shape, is currently on the coaching staff. Against Worcester, they might consider playing Phil on the loose head, Roach on the tight and Keith at hooker.
While the weekend blanks drawn by Worcester, Leeds and Newcastle helped Sale to a degree – the four strugglers are still covered by as many points, with no change in league position – the Exiles have moved into a play-off position at the expense of Wasps, whom they visit in six days' time. In this mood, they will push the former champions terribly hard. "We're not in this competition to make up the numbers, but to be there when things are decided," said their head coach, Toby Booth.
With Ryan Lamb finally finding his range at outside-half and Steffon Armitage playing with the boundless energy of a man intent on proving a whole series of points to the England coaches who continue to marginalise him – his late double tackle on Mathew Tait and Ben Cohen was nothing short of sensational – a second successive final is a distinct possibility.
Scorers: London Irish: Tries S Armitage (2), Rudd, Hewat, Corbisiero. Conversions Lamb , Malone. Penalties Lamb (3).
London Irish: P Hewat; J Rudd, E Seveali'I (T Homer, h-t), S Mapusua (M Catt, 71), D Armitage; R Lamb (C Malone, 71), P Hodgson; D Murphy (A Corbisiero, 68), J Buckland (D Coetzee, 72), F Rautenbach (J Tideswell, 68), K Roche (M Garvey, 60-62), R Casey (capt, Garvey 72), G Stowers, S Armitage, C Hala'ufia (R Thorpe, 68).
Sale: M Cueto; D James, M Tait, D Bishop, B Cohen; C Hodgson (capt, (C Leck, 53)), D Peel (R Wigglesworth, 31); G Kerr (L Imiolek, 47), M Jones, J Forster (M Halsall, 47), B Cockbain (R O'Donnell, 43), S Cox, C Fearns (L Abraham, h-t, J Kennedy, 59), D Seymour, S Koyamaibole (M Schwalger, 53).
Referee: D Richards (Berkshire).