Sale reach first Premiership final in 17 years after edging out Leicester
Sale Sharks reached their first Gallagher Premiership final for 17 years as they ended Leicester’s hopes of back-to-back titles with a 21-13 victory at the AJ Bell Stadium.
Alex Sanderson’s team will meet his former club Saracens at Twickenham on May 27 in pursuit of a Premiership crown that Sale last claimed when players like Jason Robinson, Charlie Hodgson and Sebastien Chabal ruled the roost.
After finishing 10 points above Leicester during the regular league season, Sale were pushed all the way by Tigers in an absorbing encounter.
Former Leicester fly-half George Ford played a key role in Leicester’s downfall, kicking three penalties and a conversion, while wings Tom Roebuck and Arron Reed claimed tries.
Sale overcame the sight of their captain Ben Curry being carried off injured, and they withstood a resilient Leicester effort that saw a try for wing Harry Potter, plus eight points from the boot of Jimmy Gopperth.
But Leicester will also curse themselves for twice ruining promising late attacking platforms through wayward kicks to touch that prevented attacking lineouts.
Sale showed five changes from their final regular season game against Newcastle, with Gus Warr, Simon McIntyre, Nick Schonert, Akker van der Merwe and Tom Curry all returning for the sold-out clash.
Leicester welcomed back the likes of Freddie Steward and Anthony Watson, but they suffered an injury blow when fly-half Handre Pollard was ruled out, being replaced by 39-year-old Gopperth.
The New Zealander missed a gilt-edged chance to put Leicester ahead when he drifted a close-range penalty wide, but he made amends three minutes later as Tigers moved in front.
Sale’s indiscipline surfaced early on, and Gopperth found his range again, this time from 48 metres to make it 6-0.
The game had a relentless pace to it, and it went up a gear when Sale found their rhythm, probing for gaps through adventurous running from Reed and full-back Joe Carpenter, while England centre Manu Tuilagi also made his presence felt.
Sale were a threat when they were able to put width on their possession, and Roebuck finished off a flowing move before Ford added a touchline conversion as Leicester fell behind.
The Sharks then suffered a major blow when Curry departed the action after suffering a suspected knee injury as Leicester attacked on Sale’s 22. He was replaced by Dan du Preez.
Curry received a standing ovation as he left the action, but he was soon able to watch from the sidelines, with Sharks exerting sustained pressure inside Tigers’ 22.
And Tigers’ cause was not helped when their England prop Dan Cole received a yellow card from Wayne Barnes following a high challenge on Van der Merwe.
Leicester then lost scrum-half Ben Youngs for a head injury assessment after he halted Sale centre Rob du Preez’s charge for the corner, and Tigers’ defence held firm, with Sale taking a 7-6 lead into half-time.
Youngs did not reappear for the second period – fellow England international Jack van Poortvliet took over from him – while Sanderson made early use of the replacements’ bench, sending on props Bevan Rodd and Coenie Oosthuizen.
A successful Ford penalty from just inside’s Leicester’s half opened up a four-point gap, yet the Tigers went back in front seven minutes later when centre Dan Kelly’s long pass sent Potter scampering over, with Gopperth converting.
A Ford penalty then tied the contest at 13-13 with 22 minutes left, and then he turned provider, creating space in midfield, and although his pass to Reed hit the ground, the wing finished brilliantly.
Reed was quickly at it again, breaking clear from inside his own half before firing the ball to replacement scrum-half Raffi Quirke, but the pass was rightly adjudged forward by Barnes.
Ford, who was a dominant figure during the closing quarter, then kicked a long-range penalty that left Tigers eight points behind as their title grip was prised away.