Leicester Tigers 48 Sale Sharks 10 match report: Mauling leaves Sale in intensive care
Relegation battle complicated by London Welsh hearing on Tuesday
Those supporters who had not taken the wholly understandable decision to beat the traffic stayed on the Crumbie Terrace to salute the comfortingly old-fashioned presentation of a Leicester cap to Tom Croft. The England flanker's 100th start for the club coincided with Tigers' biggest win in any competition this season and Sale's heaviest loss in the league – and as gentle a step on Croft's road to full fitness after a neck injury as could be possible in an 80-minute workout.
Even those notoriously combustible hookers-turned-coaches Richard Cockerill and Steve Diamond must have been hard pressed to get inflamed over this match. Frankly, leaving aside pride in the jersey and those other sometimes abstract considerations, there was not a lot in this for Diamond's Sale. Any sensible judge would have guessed beforehand that if the Sharks are to extricate themselves from their relegation plight it would be with points picked up elsewhere. So it proved, as Cockerill's Leicester cantered to six tries to one.
And then there is the London Welsh affair. For the umpteenth time in the so-called professional era we are mired in uncertainty during the season's run-in, with a crucial decision in someone's boardroom or courtroom to be made. The Welsh, currently three points above Sale in the bottom two places of the Premiership, are to answer a charge in a London lawyers' office on Tuesday that their New Zealander scrum-half Tyson Keats played from September to December while ineligible.
Keats has been registered properly and playing since January with the correct ancestry visa, but he did not have it during his nine appearances in the autumn, when Welsh earned 19 of their 22 points to date. Any kind of points deduction will hurt them and benefit their nearest rivals, Sale and London Irish, while Worcester may feel they did enough with their win over Wasps on Friday night to breathe easy in the five remaining rounds of matches.
Sale also have a lucrative LV= Cup semi-final with Saracens next Sunday – the bulk of the receipts go to the home club – with a Heineken Cup place as the reward for whoever wins the following weekend's final. Mind you, is a place among Europe's elite what Sale need right now? It does not carry huge financial incentive and their squad will be undergoing change in the summer, with forwards Richie Gray (probably), Kearnan Myall and Richie Vernon departing, while the pot-stirring speculator may wonder whether the international fly-half-sized hole existing at Wasps next season may suit Danny Cipriani, who was confined to the bench here alongside Gray of Scotland, Tony Buckley of Ireland and Andy Powell of Wales.
Leicester found a few ways of mucking up promising positions in the opening quarter. Croft, who has more of an eye on a summer tour – with the Lions to Australia or England to Argentina – than a late incursion into the Six Nations' Championship, signalled his intent in his fifth match back after eight months out injured by winning possession from the kick-off. He then erred by tackling a man without the ball and flicking a showboating pass forward to Adam Thompstone, while there was a dropped ball and a Leicester man in front of the kicker elsewhere.
This trouble was purely temporary. George Ford's penalty had Tigers 3-0 up very early, before the lock Ed Slater lunged past Marc Jones's challenge for Leicester's first try. Nick Macleod smacked over a long-range penalty for Sale, but Leicester were 27-3 by the interval after Thompstone was involved in a penalty try on 36 minutes – he was tackled before he could gather Dan Bowden's dinked chip to the Sale in-goal; it cost the tackler, Tom Brady, a trip to the sin-bin – and Slater took advantage of the decoy of a massive overlap to fairly gallop 30 metres for his second score. Ford, whose much-rumoured transfer to Bath is still being fiercely denied by the Rec club, kicked beautifully throughout as he landed all three conversions, and another three in the second half.
Matt Smith enjoyed his stint standing in for Manu Tuilagi – one of the many international absentees that turn these matches into a kind of Premiership Lite – with tries after 48 and 53 minutes. Croft stripped the newly arrived Powell with a hefty tackle and Ford and Bowden fed Smith for the first, before the centre darted through a horrendous gap near the posts. Croft's turnover was crucial, too, in a breakout that led at length to Mathew Tait jogging over from Ford's flat pass.
In other circumstances Sale's hard-scrummaging try for Powell's try at the death might have had Diamond in ecstasy. Instead the Sale director of rugby predicted his team would need two more wins and said: "Our performance merited our position in the league – it was pathetic." Of the London Welsh case he said: "All the sides around the bottom of the competition understand the severity of what's happened. The due process will take care of that on Tuesday."
Cockerill showed some relief after the two losses against Harlequins and Saracens in the Six Nations window, saying: "I was surprised at how easy it was to play. I thought Sale would be more turgid than that."
Leicester Tigers: M Tait (S Hamilton, 68); N Morris, M Smith, D Bowden (M Cornwell, 68), A Thompstone; G Ford, S Harrison (M Young, 54); M Ayerza (K Brookes, 68), R Hawkins (G Chuter, 68), L Mulipola (F Balmain, 30), E Slater, G Kitchener, T Croft (capt), T Waldrom (J Crane, 50), J Salvi (B Deacon, 58).
Sale Sharks: C Shepherd; T Brady, J Leota, S Tuitupou (J Davies, 61), M Jennings; N Macleod (D Cipriani, 50), C Willis (N Fowles, 50); R Harrison (V Cobilas, 58), M Jones (T Taylor, 50), H Thomas (T Buckley, 58), J Gaskell, F McKenzie (R Gray, 50), D Braid, R Vernon (A Powell, 44), D Seymour (capt).
Referee Wayne Barnes (London).
Tries: Slater 2, Penalty try, Smith 2, Tait
Cons: Ford 6
Pens: Ford 2
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