Those insisting that this season's rugby fare is dire because of flawed regulations had their case severely damaged in this outstanding Heineken Cup tie yesterday.
For Sale, victory means renewed interest in Pool Five, as tight an ensemble as exists throughout the competition; for Harlequins, a third defeat from three outings ends their campaign in every logical way aside from the mathematics.
For rugby in general, this game represented a massive shot in the arm, proof that the bovine kick-fest that has punctuated so many top-level games this season is down to cowardly coaching rather than flair-choking rules at the breakdown.
John Kingston, the Harlequins head coach, admitted his team had gifted Sale victory but also insisted: "People claiming the game is shackled by rules are talking hogwash. This was win or bust for us, so we went out to play rugby and win. Sadly, we fell short, but people who have seen our last two home games, Gloucester and this game, have seen some tremendous rugby."
David Seymour, the Sale openside flanker, stole the individual honours, ripping ball and momentum from the hosts in a series of turnovers that enabled his team to build a winning platform before the game was a third over.
"Taking the try-bonus point will prove crucial," Seymour said. "We need to repeat this at Edgeley Park next weekend and then we can start thinking in terms of the quarter-finals."
Sale took the initiative when Nick MacLeod fielded a high ball and sparked a counter-attack involving Mathew Tait, Lee Thomas and Ben Cohen which sent scrum-half Dwayne Peel through an extended defence. They then doubled their lead inside three minutes; hooker Neil Briggs was not tackled properly by Gonzalo Tiesi, and his break so gripped the home defence that they failed to confront the inside runner, MacLeod, until it was too late. Charlie Hodgson again converted for an emphatic 14-0 lead.
It required something special to open up the Mancunians, and it was the former All Black fly-half Nick Evans who duly produced it in the 19th minute. Shaping to move the ball right, Evans caught the whole defence wrong-footed by stepping inside, chipping Mark Cueto, and scoring a try which he also converted.
But the crowd were still celebrating when Sale hit back, scoring a sensational try just 10 seconds after the re-start. Nick Easter lost a high ball and Seymour was the first to the rebound, haring clear of the cover.
Within minutes, though, Quins were back in contention, scoring an absolute beauty of a try. Six passes across the field pulled Sale asunder, then Chris Robshaw and Chris Brooker released wing David Strettle up the right wing for a searing score.
Hodgson rifled over a 35-metre penalty on 40 minutes only for Quins to rekindle their hopes with a try four minutes after the break. The Londoners battered their way to the Sale line, and when Briggs held out Robshaw, it was Easter who burrowed over.
Sale then claimed their bonus point with what may prove to be an outstanding candidate for try of the season. Cueto's inside pass to Hodgson saw the former England fly-half bemuse the defence before passing inside to Seymour. The flanker moved the ball on, David Bishop found Tait who, in turn, sent Cohen flying in down the left wing to claim his 33rd European try in both competitions.
Harlequins: Tries Evans, Easter, Strettle; Conversions Evans 2. Sale: Tries: MacLeod, Cohen, Peel, Seymour; Conversions:Hodgson 3; Penalty Hodgson.
Harlequins: M.Brown; D Strettle, G Tiesi, G Lowe (Williams, 66), U Monye; N Evans, K Dickson (So'oialo, 59); C Jones, C Brooker (Fuga, 55), J Andress (Lambert, 55), L Stevenson, G Robson, C Robshaw, W Skinner(c)(McMillan, 56), N Easter.
Sale: N MacLeod; M Cueto, M Tait, L Thomas (Bishop, 50), B Cohen; C Hodgson (c), D Peel (Wigglesworth, 72); E Roberts, N Briggs (Jones, 65), J Foster (Halsall, 75), J Gaskell, S Cox, C Fearns, D Seymour, S Koyamaibole (Abraham, 59).
Referee: N Owens.Reuse content