Brian Smith, the Australian who has taken London Irish to new heights, summed up his coaching philosophy thus: "Four tries a game and I'd die happy. It's a question of good over evil." In this context Sale were the devil incarnate yesterday as they stubbornly refused to join the party.
The Exiles had won their last three Premiership matches and Sale had lost their last two and this was reflected in a first half of staggering contrast. Before a crowd of nearly 20,000, the biggest in the League this season, Irish scored three tries but Sale were never out of it because of the kicking of Charlie Hodgson who, from a variety of distances and acute angles, couldn't miss.
Despite having to reshuffle their back line through a series of injuries, Sale, who had started to look shaky after a season of dominance, performed in the second half like champions. And they probably wouldn't have done it without Hodgson. The England stand-off was reappearing after his nightmare 40 minutes against France in Paris and he looked fully rehabilitated. It wasn't just his goalkicking that swung it. His tactical kicking was exceptional and his tackling wasn't bad either.
Compare Hodgson's nine out of 10 display with that of his opposite number, Riki Flutey. The New Zealander, who has been an excellent signing, scored a try but otherwise had a. . . well, a nightmare. He and Hodgson can compare notes. From the moment Hodgson kicked a lovely early penalty and Flutey missed from a much easier range, Sale knew they were in business.
In the end, what put them nine points clear at the top of the Premiership was a victory by a goal, two tries and four penalties to three tries and two penalties. A triumph over good? On balance most certainly for Irish, sparked by another Hodgson, Paul at scrum-half, played some terrific rugby and were by far the bigger contributors to a match that contained more swings and roundabouts than a fairground.
Sale's full-back Jason Robinson had already received treatment when he limped off after being exposed by the pace of Sailosi Tagicakibau, who latched on to a turnover and dashed 60 yards. Flutey got the second try, joining a move at pace to break Mark Cueto's tackle close to the line. Within the half hour the Irish had three tries on the board. When Michael Horak had Delon Armitage on his right it was a minor miracle that he found him. The wing had moved too soon, like a relay runner, forcing Horak to improvise and the wing took the pass expertly before chipping ahead and winning the race for the touchdown.
The huge crowd had arrived here not under the misguided impression they would see Reading promoted, but to wear something green and drink something black for this, belatedly, was London Irish's St Patrick's Day celebration match. Not that there are many players in this side who would know one end of a shillelagh from the other.
Sale, who have led the Premiership from day one, were disrupted when they lost Robinson. It meant Cueto switching from wing to full-back, and he became another casualty in one of the more bizarre accidents of this or any other season. After Hodgson's immaculate boot had restricted the Exiles to a 15-12 lead at half-time, the stand-off found a 70-yard touch which led to a pushover try from Andy Titterrell, but then Cueto departed.
The ball was in touch when he tried to retrieve it and fell over a Guinness hoarding which was all of six inches high. The England wing damaged an ankle as Sale paid a price for this victory. They play Biarritz in the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup next Sunday and could be without Cueto, Robinson, Chris Mayor and Andy Sheridan.
For all their bravura, the Irish found themselves trailing 19-15 and after Flutey's futile goal-kicking they turned to Mike Catt. He began by missing a simple penalty but he was on target with an even simpler one after 53 minutes and 10 minutes later he put his side 21-19 in front. Cue Steve Hanley, who by now was one of the few Sale backs playing in his rightful position.
In the 70th minute Flutey, with the Irish in a great attacking position, fumbled a straightforward pass, Hodgson hacked 80 yards upfield and Hanley applied the finish. It was not, however, the end. With a couple of minutes remaining, Sale put together a neat blindside move and Hanley applied an even glossier finish, swerving outside Hodgson (the scrum-half) to make the left-hand corner.
Little Hodgson didn't deserve that after a marvellous display and London Irish didn't deserve a final scoreline which denied them so much as a bonus point. Cruel? It amounted to Hodgson's inhumanity to Hodgson.
London Irish: M Horak (T Ojo, 40); D Armitage, G Tiesi, M Catt (capt), S Tagicakibau; R Flutey, P Hodgson (B Willis, 78); N Hatley, D Paice (R Russell, 54), R Skuse, B Casey (R Strudwick, 78), K Roche, D Danaher, O Magne (R Thorpe, 78), K Dawson.
Sale: J Robinson(capt; C Mayor, 16); M Cueto (S Martens, 50), M Taylor, E Seveali'i, S Hanley; C Hodgson, R Wigglesworth (V Courrent, 69); B Coutts, A Titterrell, B Stewart (S Turner, 50), D Schofield, C Day, J White, C Jones, M Lund (S Bruno, 53).
Referee: S Davey (Sussex).