Thomas wins kicking contest to seal Sale win

Sale 15 Leicester 12
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The Independent Online

Finally, some rugby. After the most controversial and shameful domestic close season in the sport's history, the return of the Guinness Premiership last night allowed rugby union to begin what is likely to be a long and difficult process of self-healing.

The antics of Dean Richards et al at Harlequins have almost irrevocably damaged the sport's reputation, with Bath's drug issues not far behind, and Sale Shark's penalty laden victory over Leicester was rugby's equivalent of getting back on the horse after a nasty fall.

"Rugby has had a bad time in the last 12 months," Kingsley Jones, Sale's director of rugby, said. "We just need to get back to putting rugby on the map as a great sport. It is a great sport, I am sure everybody that came tonight to support Sale Sharks went home excited." This match was truly the start of a new term for the home side with three players, including World Cup winner Ben Cohen, making the starting 15, and a fourth, James Gaskell, making his first start with two other new signings on the bench.

The tightrope between having new faces for regeneration but enough old ones to ensure continuity is precarious but the Sharks managed it better than a Tigers' side also containing two debutants in their opening line-up.

With Martin Johnson watching on, Sale were sparkier from the kick-off as their combative pack caused problems at the Leicester scrum. But it was the visitors who scored first when Jeremy Staunton kicked his first penalty in Leicester colours after 13 minutes although Lee Thomas responded soon after. It was a pattern that would become familiar.

Before that, the match evolved into a stalemate until Leicester's Louis Deacon got 10 minutes in the sin-bin for having his hands on the ball right under his own posts. As a result, Thomas slotted his second penalty and a third followed as Sale's belligerence up front, and their extra man, found reward. Two Staunton penalties either side of the break were countered by two from Thomas as the match followed the same penalty-heavy script as the first half.

Staunton ensured a nervy conclusion with his fourth penalty with 10 minutes remaining but then missed one late on which could have made for an even more spectacular finish. As the end approached, Sale's defence was forced to dig almost inhumanly deep in order to hold out against the famous Leicester rolling maul for three lung-bursting minutes on their own line but hold out they did for a thrilling win. "We weren't good enough really," Leicester head coach Richard Cockerill said. "But we will look at the video and dust ourselves down. We will watch it again on Monday and we need to improve on some stuff."

Scorers: Sale Penalties Thomas 5; Leicester Penalties Staunton 4.

Sale: Macleod; Cueto, Bell (Tait, 53), Thomas (Tuilagi, 76), Cohen, Hodgson, Wigglesworth; Roberts (Kerr, 69), Jones (Abraham, 58), Forster (Halsall, 64) Jones, Schofield (capt), Gaskell, Briggs (Schwalger,64), Koyamaibole (Tait, 72). Unused replacements: Cliff.

Leicester: Murphy (capt); Smith, Hipkiss, Allen, Hamilton, Staunton, Youngs; Ayerza, Chuter (Chuter, 8) Castrogiovanni (White, 61) , Blaze, Deacon (Kay, 58), Newby, Woods (Moody, 55), Crane. Unused replacements: Parr; Grindal, Twelvetrees, Murphy.

Referee: D Rose.

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