If the Premiership newcomers from the deepest West Country hit a wall three weeks or so ago, they found a way of climbing over it on their last long trip of the season.
Exeter may yet return from whence they came, but only if the disciplinarians of the Rugby Football Union turn next week's hearing about a minor misdemeanour on the foreign player front into something resembling a show trial – or still worse, the sporting equivalent of the Bloody Assizes. All things being equal, the Devonians will survive their first campaign in the top tier of the English game with a good deal to spare.
They scored three tries in Stockport yesterday, every one of them a nail in the coffin as far as the sentimentalists of the north-west were concerned. This was Charlie Hodgson's 230th and possibly final game for Sale – he has accumulated more than 2,500 points across 10 and a half years – and as a big proportion of the local public place the outside-half very high in the list of the club's best-ever players, only the hard of heart would have wished this on him.
"Charlie was outstanding, again," said Steve Diamond, who played with Hodgson during his long stint in the middle of the Sale front row, has recently been managing him in his new role as executive director of sport at Edgeley Park, and would far rather he was not pushing off to Saracens. "He was virtually faultless. The players' heads were all over the place before the game: it was almost a celebration of the fact that this was his final home match. I'm not celebrating, that's for sure. The only good thing about it is that while there are nine teams better than us at the moment, eight of them won't be able to pick Charlie against us next season."
Diamond was scathing about his team's performance, reeling off facts and figures – 11 dropped passes before half-time was a memorable statistic – that would put any professional outfit to shame. James Gaskell, the beanpole blind-side flanker with energy and commitment to burn, and Henry Thomas, the skilful young tight-head prop, were absolved from blame, although the latter had a rough time of it at the set-piece. "The thing is, we can't look to the kids to pull us out of trouble all the time," Diamond remarked, not unreasonably. "There are experienced people here who are paid a lot of money, and we need to see more from them. If people play like that at Gloucester in our last game, we could capitulate. And we can't have that, can we?"
Hodgson pulled every trick he ever mastered in an effort to leave town on a high: there were exquisitely-timed passes off either hand, siege-gun punts to touch, a pitch-perfect kicking display from the tee – even a drop-goaled conversion of Will Addison's try at the death, which gave Sale one last shot at pinching the spoils. It was not enough. All sorts of presentations and eulogies were planned immediately the final whistle sounded, but as is his wont, he preferred to sit quietly in a corner and mull over the whys and wherefores of another painful defeat.
Exeter had been hurting themselves before embarking on the M5-M6 journey from hell – Bank Holiday drives on those particular roads are purgatorial, to say the very least – but they started the game as though they were full of the joys of spring. Igncaio Mieres, the Argentine outside-half said to be playing for a contract renewal, had them on the board with a penalty inside eight minutes and when his fellow midfielders, Sireli Naqelevuki and Phil Dollman, milked an overlap to send Nic Sestaret in at the right corner early in the second quarter, he was every bit as accurate in nailing the wide-angled conversion.
Sale were back on terms by the break, Hodgson chipping away at the deficit with a penalty and converting a Chris Bell try that was entirely down to the teenaged Addison's smart off-load out of contact. But Bell was among those at fault when Matt Jess hoovered up some spilled possession and ran 70 metres to restore his side's 10-point advantage, and with the home scrum in all sorts of strife, the chances of a second comeback appeared less than great.
To their credit, Sale worked their back to within three, Wame Lewaravu smashing through Tom Johnson and Chris Whitehead after a long attack orchestrated by Hodgson and featuring both Gaskell and Sisa Koyamaibole, albeit in very different modes. Gaskell has pace, but no poundage; Koyamaibole is particularly well endowed in the avoirdupois department – a useful asset when trying to play a No 8's game off a rotten scrum – but has nothing much in the way of straight-line speed. Until the northerners stabilise their first-phase operation, neither man will find it possible to maximise his talent.
This weakness betrayed Sale again when Exeter set about them with a driving scrum and won themselves a penalty, duly converted by Gareth Steenson, who rarely misses and did not look like doing so during his 20-minute cameo here. And when Will Cliff, on at scrum-half for the vastly more experienced Dwayne Peel, ran into trouble in his own half and allowed his opposite number Junior Poluleuligaga a sniff of the ball going forward, he put his colleagues in terrible difficulties. Sure enough, the visiting captain Tom Hayes appeared on the Fijian's shoulder and ran the best part of 30 metres – a long way for a lock – to wrap up the game.
Watching all this was John Wells, the England forwards coach, and he cannot have been overjoyed at the sight of the Sale loose-head prop Andrew Sheridan, who is first choice at national level, retreating at such alarming speed. To make matters worse, the injury-prone British and Irish Lion is due to have another of his regular shoulder operations over the next few days. The surgery should put him in a good position, physically speaking, for the World Cup in New Zealand this autumn. Where Sheridan will be psychologically is another question entirely.
Sale: Tries Bell, Lewaravu, Addison. Conversions Hodgson 3. Penalty Hodgson. Exeter: Tries Sestaret, Jess, Hayes. Conversions Mieres 2, Steenson. Penalties Mieres 2, Steenson.
Sale: N MacLeod; P Williams (K Tonetti h-t), C Bell, A Tuilagi (R Miller 74), W Addison; C Hodgson (capt), D Peel (W Cliff 63); A Sheridan, N Briggs, H Thomas (E Lewis-Roberts 43), W Lewaravu, S Cox (C Jones 70), J Gaskell, C Fearns (N McMillan 74), S Koyamaibole.
Exeter: L Arscott; N Sestaret, P Dollman, S Naqelevuki (B Rennie 85), M Jess; I Mieres (G Steenson 57), H Thomas (J Poluleuligaga 76); B Sturgess, N Clark (C Whitehead 55), H Tui (C Budgen 55), T Hayes, J Hanks (C Slade 70), T Johnson, J Scaysbrook, R Baxter (J Phillips 85).
Referee: P Fitzgibbon (Ireland).