One of the more extraordinary finishes in the Premiership this season left London Irish, breathing heavily perhaps, back at the top. What seemed likely to be a pedestrian win at the Madejski Stadium suddenly turned into a magnificent scrap as Sale suddenly discovered themselves.
With 30 minutes to go, Irish may have been turning over in their minds how best to score the bonus-point try while resting some of their front-line troops. Then, within the space of 10 minutes, Sale scored 20 points and were on level terms, but still there was plenty of drama to come.
Ryan Lamb, so much more mature in his game management this season, kicked two more penalty goals and, as time ticked away, Irish were awarded a penalty. Still looking for the try bonus, they ran the ball and Sale were penalised yet again for not retreating 10 metres; but they forced a turnover penalty and, though deep in their own 22, decided to chase that elusive result three minutes into time added on.
They made ground but, on his own 22, Chris Jones forced a pass and collapsed to the ground in horror as it fell into the hands of Jamie Joseph, who gleefully ran in his second try and secured the point that keeps Irish noses ahead of Northampton. "If Chris had pulled the ball back and we'd got into space, we could have won by a point," Mike Brewer, Sale's head coach, said ruefully. "But I'm more concerned at the first-half period in which we didn't adhere to the plan.
"The team got a rocket at half-time [when Brewer replaced his entire back- row] but we have a lot of young, inexperienced players who sometimes rush things when they're under pressure, and in the end it cost us a [losing bonus] point."
But if the mark of a good team is their reaction to adversity, then Irish are a good team. Their line-out gives them one of the most solid platforms in the league, Lamb is kicking his goals and also scored the first try after Bob Casey charged down a kick from Paul Williams and good interplay by the forwards created pressure on the Sale line.
Before the interval Joseph crossed for a second after what was, in effect, an 85-metre move. Paul Hodgson's powers of harassment allowed Irish to kick clear from their own 22 and, when Casey won a line-out, they played patiently before Lamb's long pass freed Joseph. When George Stowers hammered over early in the second half, the match seemed dead as a contest. Only Sale did not agree; from a free kick in their own 22 they found space down the left and Ben Cohen sent Anitelea Tuilagi roaring home from 45 metres.
Two penalties by Nick Macleod reduced the deficit further and then a delightful pass from Williams gave Neil Briggs the chance to send Cohen away for Sale's second try. It amounted to a considerable slap in the face for the Exiles but they responded well.
Scorers: London Irish: Tries Lamb, Joseph 2, Stowers. Conversions Lamb 2. Penalties Lamb 4. Dropped goal Lamb. Sale: Tries Tuilagi, Cohen. Conversions Macleod 2. Penalties Macleod 4.
London Irish: T Homer (C Malone, 27); T Ojo, S Mapusua (E Seveali'i, 52), D Bowden, J Joseph; R Lamb, P Hodgson; C Dermody (capt; F Rautenbach, 50), D Paice (J Buckland, 57), A Corbisiero (D Murphy, 57), N Kennedy, R Casey, K Roche (M Garvey, 57), C Hala'ufia, G Stowers (S Armitage, 65).
Sale: P Williams; T Brady, C Bell, A Tuilagi (R Miller, 57), B Cohen; N Macleod, W Cliff; A Croall (L Imiolek, 41), N Briggs (capt), K Wihongi (H Thomas, 69), W Lewaravu (C Jones, 57), N Rouse, C Fearns (C Brightwell, 41), D Seymour (M Jones, 41), K Ormsby (S Koyamaibole, 41).
Referee: M Fox (Leicestershire).