Tigers moved to within one point of second place with a comprehensive 28-8 victory at home to Sale, stretching their winning run against the Sharks to 12 games and almost 6 years. After two tryless games Tigers fell just short of the bonus point despite a frantic final minute searching for the point that would have put us joint second.
Tigers opened the scoring after just 5 minutes with a Freddie Burns penalty; Seremaia Bai had made a telling break up the right touchline that set the tone for the performance. Tigers will be disappointed that 10 minutes in the Sale half ended with the opponents leveling the score. After a contentiously awarded Sale lineout the Sharks surged forward 10 meters in a driving maul before Neil Briggs collapsed it as it passed halfway. Nick Macleod nailed the 50m kick for 3-3.
Tigers roared back through Laurence Pearce; breaking the long tryless spell. First Parling made ground before Pearce squirmed and squeezed his way over. Pearce twisted and turned his body, keeping the legs driving, so that despite Sale full back Mike Haley's tackle he slammed the ball down over the line as he landed on his back.
Sale were fortunate to avoid a yellow card just 3 minutes later; Tigers were rampant again inside Sale's 22, Jordan Crane burst through a gap and had options either side taken out early by the Sale defence. Pearce was to his left and Ayerza to the right. With only the full back to beat the early tackles surely warranted a penalty try and yellow card but Welford Road was left baffled as referee Greg Garner, from Coventry, refused to give more than a penalty.
To make matters more bizarre 2 minutes later Sale wing Tom Arscott was sin binned for a marginal deliberate knock on a full 50 metres out as Tigers were again breaking through. Arscott was hard done by to concede a penalty let alone spend ten minutes thinking about his troubles.
During the sin bin period Tigers were held up over the line twice; first Neil Briggs seemed to have capitalised on mounting Tigers pressure to drive over under the posts, only for the TMO to deny him. With no bodies under the ball and him clearly over the line it was a very harsh call, Northampton will be thankful the same logic was not applied last May at Twickenham. Tigers tried again from the scrum and Pearce again forced his way over, this time cute to his ways Sale made sure to clamp over the ball and deny a grounding.
The move was not yet over though as Sale's Mancunian Viking Magnus Lund, replete with long hair and handle bar moustache, was caught off side at a prior ruck and sin binned. Tigers went for the scrum and after initial inertia worked their magic and powered forward. Crane was prevented from grounding the ball by an illegally unbound Sale flanker and this time Garner was in no doubt about awarding the amply deserved penalty try.
Tigers had one last bash at the Sale before half time, Bai and Goneva combining to see the latter clear to the full back, unfortunately he and Adam Thompstone did not quite read each other correctly and Goneva's pass went to ground. Sale had the last chance of the half, forcing Tigers into their own 22 for the first time and a series of concerted efforts came to naught as Judas Gibson forced the penalty for holding on.
The second half was a different kettle of fish entirely. Sale were much better, keeping the ball and playing patiently, Tigers much worse, fluffing lineouts and handling errors creeping back in and Garner was Garner, bizarrely sin binning Seremaia Bai for a very marginally early tackle a full 50 metres from the line, where earlier he had refused to sanction a Sale player just 5 yards out, and seemingly determined to make up for some perceived pro Tigers calls in the first half by making even more just to the other side this time.
After the Bai penalty Sale went to their trusty driving maul, once again the Northerners set about marching forward but some slackness at the back enabled Sam Harrison to insert himself and steal the ball. With Harrison then being tackled by an offside man a Tigers penalty was surely coming but instead a scrum 5 to Sale, apparently there was no maul, no offside, simply good pressure. From the scrum the ball was spun wide, Sale were seemingly in touch with the touch judge flagging Arscott before he put the ball down.
Garner though was not to be denied and awarded the try after consulting the TMO, to me his foot was clearly in touch before the grounding but it was a nip and tuck decision; how Mark Cueto must wish this TMO was in Paris in 2007! Now I sincerely hope that in the rest of this season we have no players punished for playing on after the whistle, as clearly in the TMO age the referee can ignore his own officiating team's decisions if he fancies and see what happens.
With Sale now back within two converted tries, and having had a decent shot at a second try rebuffed by manful Tigers defence, Tigers took their next chance to extend the lead with both hands. Burns converting a scrum penalty from 40m rather than kicking the corner as had been the early tactics.
Tigers had a third try ruled out as Burns interception and clear run the try line was pulled back for an earlier penalty, despite Sale having at least three phases and 30 yards of progress. Sale retained possession well to take the time away from Tigers and dim hopes of a try bonus point.
With just three minutes left Tigers kicked a penalty to the corner, our chance was here, slim though it may be, to take the try. They lost the line out. But forced a knock on from Maxim Cobilas, brother of starting tighthead Vadim, from the scrum Bai was unleashed and breaking a tackle he crashed over. With just 90 seconds left Burns quickly taken drop goal conversion was wide.
Tigers attacked from the deep kick off, Burns looked for a cross field kick but it was blocked, deflected. Straight into the arms of Thacker! He fed Rizzo, the prop generating roars from the Crumbie as he dummied outside and stepped inside. Running free he was looking for the pass, Whetton was on his outside and Goneva coming up the middle, but the Sale defence was blocking the passing lanes and he rightly took the tackle.
A penalty advantage gave Tigers room for an error, which they took, but promptly found another as Thacker knocked on trying to take a pass at full pace just inches from the defence. He had already broken the line when he dropped it, such was the flatness of the ball.
Still 4 points was a good reward and the style it came in will have lifted the hearts of many Tigers fans. It might seem as bizarre as a Greg Garner decision after some of the games this season but Tigers really are still in with a shot at an 11th English Championship!