Phew. What a game. Tigers inept and inspired within the same 80 minutes as this roller coaster hit the heights and plumbed the depths. Tigers produced the second biggest comeback in club history to secure a vital 5 points and keep our dreams of a home semi final on life support for a few more weeks.
Tigers spent a grand total of 3 minutes in the lead. But like was said last week it doesn't matter. We could have won and this time we did. Julian Salvi was credited with the winning try; a huge heaving effort from forwards and backs alike saw Ayerza and Bai clamp on to the Australian and drive him home. Fantastic composure from all involved, as not only did the forwards grind it over but Benjamin & the other backs remained alive drawing men away from the breakdown, perhaps creating that small gap.
To the match itself Sale were much the better side during the opening 50 minutes, our wide defence was cut to ribbons by a fast and vivid Sharks attack, only heroic goal line defending kept the score to 30 points.
The first try was scored down Sale's right wing. Sam Tuitupou took the ball deep from Cipriani on our 22m line, shrugged off Freddie Burns then Tommy Bell's pretty ineffectual tackles to storm to the 5m line, dragged down by Crane and Benjamin. Sale then battered the line. Will Addison took out Miles Benjamin off the ball to open up a gap which Chris Cusiter spotted to dive over for the opening score.
Tigers attack by contrast was more leaden but did eventually get over the line. A fantastic trademark stepping burst from Goneva freed Benjamin to stride deep into the Sale 22, it seemed to take an age going side to side and the chance looked lost when Ghiraldini was being driven backwards. But Burns' quick thinking ripped the ball free and floated a short pass over a Sale man to Crane. Crane did the simple pass well to Bai who stormed over to level the score.
A Cipriani penalty for a rare Leicester infringement gave the lead back to Sale and Tigers could have been further behind but for Jamie Gibson forcing a knock on from Mike Haley as the full back tried to ground the ball for a try.
Tigers however took back the lead after an aggressive decision to kick a penalty to touch rather than at goal. A quick maul was, perhaps, inching forward when Youngs spotted the gap. For my money he was in himself but chose to feed Tait on the wing who just nipped in. After consultation with the TMO the try was awarded and Burns nailed the difficult touchline conversion.
This sparked Sale into a spell of sustained pressure and excellence as they scored 22 points in 15 minutes. Will Addison scored almost immediately after Tait; taking advantage of Tommy Bell being caught ball watching he slid wide of the full back for the easy score. With the first try as well it really was not Bell's day on his return to his former club.
Tigers were reeling at this point, Sale cutting loose in front of their biggest ever crowd. Thankfully one move was ended as Eiffion Lewis-Roberts the gargantuan prop was the man free on the over lap and Tait could lasso the big man at the knees.
Sale joined Tigers in turning down a stream of kickable penalties as they went for the kill. Eventually Gibson was sent to the sin bin, harshly as he was pinned at the bottom of the ruck, and Sale again went for the drive. Tigers withstood the pressure for a time but Nathan Hines was soon enough driven over for a 25-15 half time lead.
Quickly into the second half Sale extended their lead and secured the try bonus point to boot. Burns kicked from the shadow of his posts just barely finding touch allowing Sale to go quickly. The Sale winger's boot was clearly in the field of play when he took it and the lineout should have been brought back but referee Wigglesworth was at the mercy of his linesman who did not make the call.
Haley shimmied his way to the 22m tight to the touchline, Tait and Bell miscommunicated as the small blindside was clearly theirs to defend and that wily old fox Tuitupou took advantage ambling over for what seemed like the knock out score.
15 points down and Tigers were lost, down beat and out for the count. Only once before in the 134 year history of England's most storied club had "The Death or Glory Boys" dug themselves out of a hole bigger than 14 points.
But as Rocky Balboa rises bloodied and battered from the canvas asking for more the Tigers never gave up. On 50 minutes Gibson was re-introduced with Ayerza, Tom Youngs and Balmain, giving Tigers fresh impetus. Shortly after Thompstone replaced Bell, with Tait back at home at full back.
Tigers kicked again to the corner. Again it seemed to take an age of going left to right but eventually the half chance was created; Burns to Tait, the half jink and on to Benjamin with no room to manoeuvre but the Birmingham born winger dazzled the defence with a stop and go. He slighted to the right, then blasted past them on the left beating four men to squeeze into the corner with only millimetres to spare.
Belief was building now. But Sale were not quite in their shells just yet; they burst through the middle for the clinching score. Mat Tait as ever is Tigers weather vane, where his form goes so does the team, and his form was bubbling to brilliance as he ran the channel and blocked down the final pass in a surely try scoring Sale move, only to then pounce on the loose ball to eradicate the danger.
With Freddie Burns pulled after yet another midfield chip and chase horror ball, the calming presence of Owen Williams was introduced. The Welshman steered the Tigers around the park noticeably running the ball from deeper and kicking less frequently and more importantly less aimlessly. With the game now being firmly played in the Sale half and the home side leaking penalties it was inevitable that Williams would eventually be given a chance to cut the deficit to five. Belief was now coursing through the Tigers veins.
Sam Harrison was introduced at around the same time as Williams and added spark and pace to Tigers attack at just the time that Sale were tiring and perhaps starting to think about their first victory over Tigers in 11 games and over five and a half years.
The clock was beginning to run dangerously low and Tigers had to decide between aiming for 2 more penalties or going for the try.
In the end the decision was made for us as Sale did not infringe again until only four minutes were remaining; Will Addison again taking liberties with off the ball contact, this time taking out our support man and forcing Harrison into the ruck to secure the ball, thus losing crucial quick ball in a great position. Wigglesworth spotted the offence and showed no hesitation in brandishing the yellow card for the second time in the match.
To the corner they went, with new man Peterson brought into the fray, De Chaves won the lineout and was driven. Tigers broke off the side and towards the posts. Gibson, Barbieri, Bai. Peterson, Barbieri, Balmain. They all tried and were repulsed. Then Salvi lead a charge featuring Bai and Ayerza as his lieutenants, with Gibson adding his weight too. Standing behind the posts we could just see Bai's mocha head pop through the ruck and several orange shirts belly flop over the line.
Delight, relief, joy! It was given! The vociferous and partisan Sale crowd were appalled and Owen Williams did not exactly help matters milking every last one of his allotted 90 seconds, and then some, to kill as much of the clock as possible.
It was not yet over though as Tigers muffed the kick off and had to defend their lead for two agonising minutes until Leota knocked on to end a topsy turvey , a glorious, a memorable match.