By Nick Powell, Online Editor
Tries: Roebuck 20, Reed 64
Conversions: Ford 21
Penalties: Ford 47, 57, 69
Tries: Potter 55
Conversions: Gopperth 56
Penalties: Gopperth 8, 10
Sale Sharks ended their 17-year wait to make the Premiership Final as they battled past reigning champions Leicester Tigers.
Roared on by a raucous AJ Bell Stadium crowd, Sale recovered from a shaky first quarter of an hour to lead at the break as Tom Roebuck went over on the 20 minute mark, but they arguably should have been further clear by the half-time whistle.
George Ford eventually extended the lead to four points shortly after half-time, and though Harry Potter’s score put Leicester back the lead, Ford was quick to level the scores from another penalty.
And it was Ford’s final penalty, which came following Aaron Reed’s score, that ended his former team’s hopes of retaining the title and sent Sale to their first final since 2006, the only previous occasion they have won the Premiership.
The physicality and intensity of the semi-final showcased Premiership Rugby at its best. None of the tries scored were by any means collector’s items, but all three were hard earned and well-executed with several other opportunities going begging.
For a league that has faced legitimate questions about its competitive edge, this contest stirred memories of epic semi-final matches of the past, and showed why both had earned their places in the play-off spots for this campaign.
Leicester started the better of the two sides, and after Jimmy Gopperth missed an early penalty for the visitors he slotted two in as many minutes to put Leicester 6-0 ahead with less than ten minutes gone.
The first fifteen minutes were controlled by the Tigers, but improved discipline, the upper-hand at the set-piece and breakdown, and improved execution saw Sale begin to turn the tide.
Akker van der Merwe missed the chance to become the joint-highest scoring forward in Sale history when he fumbled after breaking from the back of a maul, but beautiful hands from Rob Du Preez and Joe Carpenter after clinical build-up play eventually saw Roebuck cross for the first try of the game at the end of the first quarter, which Ford converted.
But despite Dan Cole going to the sin-bin and a TMO check as Du Preez put a foot in touch reaching for the try line, Tigers withstood a relentless spell of Sale dominance to stay just one point behind at the break.
Though Tigers would start the second half a man down for more than five minutes, they could head into the break with huge confidence having denied a seemingly irresistible period of their opposition being camped on their line.
It was just prior to Cole’s return that Sale finally got points out of the period they had the extra man, as Ford landed a brilliant long-range penalty after Tom Curry’s turnover, but with Cole’s return Leicester looked emboldened.
A frantic period of open play ended in another Curry turnover, but as the ball was shovelled to Manu Tuilagi on the edge of Sale’s 22 he fumbled to hand Leicester a scrum in an ideal position.
Harry Potter was the beneficiary, crossing in the corner after Dan Kelly’s perfectly weighted pass to put Tigers back in front, with Gopperth extending the advantage from the touchline.
It didn’t last long however, and after Carpenter was taken out in the air Ford levelled from the tee again it was an unforced error on the edge of the 22, this time by Leicester, which fed the position for another try.
The usually reliable Freddie Steward dropped the ball backwards over the 22 and sliced it into touch on the full to hand Sale a lineout inside Tigers’ red zone, before the same player was forced to run into touch less than five metres from his own line after a smart kick through from Rob Du Preez.
It set up the position Sale needed, and after they worked their way from right to left across the field, Ford managed to get a pass away to Reed, who gathered a loose, bouncing ball to wrestle the lead back.
Ford missed the resulting conversion, but his penalty as the game ticked toward the final ten minutes produced the first two-score advantage in the match, and gave Leicester a mountain to climb.
And any lingering hopes of a Tigers victory were dashed when first Charlie Atkinson, and then Jack van Poortvliet both missed kicks for touch that went dead, with Sale closing out the contest with the eight-point margin remaining intact.
Match reaction to follow…
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