Sale and London Irish were the surprise packages in last season's Premiership though neither, before yesterday's Heywood Road clash, has surprised anyone this campaign. Of the two, the European Shield holders Sale have begun marginally the more convincing, especially when defeating Leicester here three weeks ago. Irish, languishing in the bottom three, needed victory badly on a ground where they have won only once in the professional era.
For nearly all of the first half and the first three minutes of the second, it looked as if they might earn themselves a second victory of what has been a disastrous first six weeks of the new season. But well before the late sending-off of their replacement flanker, James Cockle, for stamping, Irish were floundering.
Not that Sale were always at their most self-assured, and it wasn't until stoppage time that Mark Cueto scored their fourth try to secure a bonus point. The home side had all sorts of problems at the breakdown, where three players were sin-binned for killing the ball. If Irish could have made more of the fact that Sale had to play for 20 minutes of the first half with 14 men, things may have been different. But this was a match of mays and maybes.
Quite why player-coach, Brendan Venter, now fully fit, chooses not to include himself in the side, who miss his acumen and leadership so clearly, remains a mystery. Before the break it seemed not to matter that much, as Irish scored the only try through Paul Sackey, while the dependable Barry Everitt dropped a goal after opening his account with a penalty.
All Sale had, after a frustrating period when they were distinctly second best at the line-out and in the contest for the loose ball, was two penalties from Charlie Hodgson.
Given that Steve Hanley and Cueto had been yellow-carded in that period, Sale's five-point deficit did not appear too daunting. It didn't take long for Mel Deane to wipe it out with a shimmying try at the posts which Hodgson converted.
Growing in confidence, Sale were now running the ball at every opportunity. And quite simply having a ball is their gangly lock, Chris Jones. Having seen off Austin Healey in a 50-metre sprint for a try against the Tigers, Jones intercepted a pass from Everitt and sped away from a startled Pieter Rossouw for a 60-metre special which sealed the result.
Although Hodgson failed with the conversion from the touchline, he slotted a neat dropped goal, a third penalty and converted Cueto's last-gasp try. Mark Mapletoft got Irish's only points of the second half with a penalty. They deserved no more.
Sale: J Robinson; M Cueto, J Baxendell, M Deane (D Harris, 71), S Hanley; C Hodgson, B Redpath (capt); J Thorp (K Yates, 71), A Titterrell (C Marais, 49), B Stewart, C Jones, D Schofield (A Perelini, 77), A Sanderson, S Pinkerton, P Anglesea.
London Irish: M Horak; P Sackey, J Bishop, G Appleford, P Rossouw; B Everitt (M Mapletoft, 50), D Edwards; M Worsley (N Hatley, 45), N Drotske, R Hardwick (P Durant, 20), R Strudwick (capt), B Casey, D Danaher (J Cockle, 69), K Dawson, P Gustard.
Referee: H Watkins (Maesteg).
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