It was the best of times and worst of times for Sale on Saturday as they were comfortably beaten by a London Irish side determined to end the season on a high although the "home" team were inspired by the Reebok Stadium idea they believe will revive both the club's fortunes and rugby union in the north of England.
Carl Fearns, the flanker who will leave for Bath next season, insisted that, despite a clash with the FA Cup semi-finals, "Rugby at the Reebok"succeeded in raising the sport's profile.
"We're devastated to have lost," he said. "But it was a great occasion. The players loved it today. The atmosphere was great. In the build-up to this match we went to see a lot of clubs in the North West and many of them came down to watch. I think it's done a lot for rugby in the North."
Though Sale had expected to attract more than 20,000 fans to Bolton Wanderers home ground, that figure appeared unrealistic when Wanderers themselves, Manchester United and Manchester City all won places at Wembley. Still, just fewer than 17,000 made it to Horwich, nearly three times the average crowd at Edgeley Park, the club's Stockport home.
Mick Hogan, Sale's chief executive, was delighted by the success of the occasion and has demanded the club use it as a springboard to return to the glory of five years ago when they won the Premiership. "Everyone has been very impressed with what they've seen at the Reebok," he said. "We've got to replicate that now."
Despite the special occasion, Sale were shorn of some of their most-influential figures, including the suspended Mark Cueto, Dwayne Peel and Andrew Sheridan, and subsequently suffered.
England wing Topsy Ojo, David Paice and David Bowden touched down for Irish and Tom Homer kicked nine points to amass a 21-point lead for the away side at half time.
Despite a Sale comeback, during which Sisa Koyamaibole had a try ruled out before Sean Cox drove over and Fiji international Wame Lewaravu burst through to score, Steffon Armitage sealed the win and earned a bonus point for Irish with a last-minute try converted by Homer.
The victory keeps Irish in the hunt for a play-off place. They lie just four points behind Northampton, their next opponents.
Scorers: Sale: Tries Cox, Lewaravu. Conversions Hodgson 2. Pens Hodgson 2.
London Irish: Tries: Ojo, Paice, Bowden, Armitage. Conversions: Homer 4. Pens: Homer 2.
Sale Sharks: Macleod (Miller 30-40); Williams, Bell, Tuilagi, Addison; Hodgson, Cliff; Lewis-Roberts (Imiolek 75), Briggs, Thomas, Lewaravu, Cox (C Jones 69), Gaskell, Fearns, Koyamaibole. Unused replacements: McIntyre, McMillan, Leck, Tonettit, M Jones.
London Irish: D Armitage; Ojo, Seveali'i (Joseph 77), Mapusua, Homer; Bowden, Hodgson (Allinson 54); Corbisiero (Dermody 52) Paice (Buckland 59), Ion (Rautenbach 59), Kennedey, Casey (Johnson 52), Gibson, S Armitage, Stowers (Thorpe 69). Unused replacements: Malone. Referee: J P Doyle.