Sales Sharks met the champion’s challenge head on in this season-opener, clinging on with desperate defence in the closing minutes to repel the Tigers and claim a victory that goes some way to answering sceptics who felt they may struggle after under-recruiting during the off-season.
The Tigers were expected to sweep all before them this season, instead the Sharks showed discipline and composure in shrugging off the close-season loss of several charismatic players to capitalise on the few opportunities that came their way.
“A minute from the end I’m wondering why I do this job, Then a minute later I know why. It’s a wonderful feeling.”
Five penalties from the boot of Sharks centre, Lee ‘Bomber’ Thomas, powered their offence as the Barry-lad repaid some of the two-year contract he signed at the end of last season.
Crucially Sale stemmed the tide of penalties that had so worried Director of Rugby, Kingsley Jones, during the pre-season games. In so doing they restricted the powerful Tigers to just three converted penalties.
There was a real sense of relief as game time approached. A sense of ‘and now for something completely different’. Rugby was back. Pure and simple.
It didn’t take Ben Youngs long to shake off the summer rust either. The gritty half back got down and dirty with Sale skipper, Schofield in a 6th minutes scuffle that earned him a ticking off from referee, Mr Rose.
Charlie Hodgson missed the chance to give Sale the lead, slicing a 35-metre penalty wide right. With Leicester’s stronger pack dominating the scrum and ruck play that looked to be a luxury the home side could ill afford.
Certainly Leicester’s Jeremy Staunton made no mistake with a much simpler attempt on 12-minutes to open a 3-point lead after Sale infringed in defending their line from another dominant Tiger ruck.
A fifty metre penalty by centre, Lee Thomas, tied the game moments later as Leicester’s Martin Castrogiavanni stalled Sales attempt at second phase possession.
Staunton rattled the left upright with a 45 metre penalty attempt on 24 mninutes as the game settled into a midfield tussle for supremacy.
Sale rallied on the back of some enterprising approach play, winning a penalty in front of the posts, which Thomas converted for a 6-3 home lead. The Tigers also had Louis Deacon sin-binned for dissent, booting the ball away after the penalty was awarded.
Steady rain seemed to fuel rather than dampen the Sharks’ spirits as they sought to capitalise on their numerical advantage. And Thomas landed a gem from 50 metres out and on the left centre channel.
But Staunton pegged the gap back to 3 when he converted a simple 20 metre penalty on 36 minutes. Another Staunton penalty at the start of the second half levelled the game at nine.
Hodgson’s 50th minute drop goal attempt hooked wide left but the Sharks picked-up a penalty as the ball was in flight and Thomas stepped-up to edge them back in front 12-9. Thomas followed that up moments later by landing a huge kick from half way to open a 6 point lead.
Gavin Kerr made his debut off the bench when Eifon Roberts picked-up an injury on 73 minutes.
Staunton set up a tense ending to the game when he landed a penalty from wide out on the right to make the score 15-12.
Sale responded with Hodgson breaking across midfield and MacLeod raking a kick into the right corner. But the Tigers were too strong in the scrum to allow the Sharks to capitalise.
In the end the Sharks were forced to defend their goal line desperately as the Tigers pounded their line in search of either the breakthrough score or the inevitable penalty.
But superb discipline, the fruits of hard work on the Carrington training pitch paid dividends as they endured what seemed like a five-minute rolling-maul that ended with the Tigers well short of the line and well out of time.
It was a stunning victory and greeted by roars not only from the crowd, but also from the delighted players who leapt for joy at the final whistle.
15 Nick Macleod, 14 Mark Cueto, 13 Chris Bell, 12 Lee Thomas, 11 Ben Cohen, 10 Charlie Hodgson, 9 Richard Wigglesworth, 1 Eifion Roberts, 2 Marc Jones, 3 Jack Forster, 4 Chris Jones, 5 Dean Schofield (Captain), 6 James Gaskell, 7 Neil Briggs, 8 Sisa Koyamaibole
Replacements: 16 Mahonri Schwalger, 17 Gavin Kerr, 18 Martin Halsall, 19 David Tait, 20 Luke Abrahams, 21 Will Cliff, 22 Mathew Tait, 23 Andy Tuilagi
P: Hodgson 0/1, Thomas 5/5
15 Geordan Murphy (captain) 14 Matt Smith 13 Dan Hipkiss 12 Anthony Allen 11 Scott Hamilton 10 Jeremy Staunton 9 Ben Youngs 1 Marcos Ayerza 2 George Chuter 3 Martin Castrogiovanni 4 Richard Blaze 5 Louis Deacon 6 Craig Newby 7 Ben Woods 8 Jordan Crane
Replacements: 16 Mefin Davies 17 Julian White 18 Matt Parr 19 Ben Kay 20 Lewis Moody 21 James Grindal 22 Billy Twelvetrees 23 Johne Murphy
P: Staunton 3/4
9 Hodgson pen miss (0/1)
12 Staunton pen (1/1) 0-3
16 Thomas pen (1/1) 3-3
24 Staunten pen miss (1/2)
30 Thomas pen (2/2) 6-3
32 Thomas pen (3/3) 9-3
36 Staunton pen (2/3) 9-6
42 Staunton pen (3/4) 9-9
51 Thomas pen (4/4) 12-9
53 Thomas pen (5/5) 15-9
62 Thomas pen miss (5/6)
68 Staunton pen (4/5) 15-12
Referee: Mr David Rose
Players of Note:
- Lee ‘Bomber’ Thomas’s long-range kicking ensured the Sharks remained in the contest.
Sale Sharks Director of Rugby, Kingsley Jones:
“We’ve been under dogs, but I felt we showed we can play as a team. We almost did a Leicester on Leicester. Our lineout struggled but apart from the that the attitude and commitment (of the players) more than made up for it.
“In poor conditions – I’m sure it wasn’t a great crowd pleaser – the result is what it’s all about and that will give us confidence for the next game (Newcastle).”
Leicester Tigers head coach:
“Our discipline wasn’t great. We got on the wrong side of the referee, which is really frustrating because every side works hard to get on the right side of the breakdown. But I’ve got not complaints they controlled the game better than we did.
“We spent to much of the game in our own half especially in that second half with the wind behind us. It’s hard to play in those conditions when they are kicking and chasing well. Credit to them.”