Saracens hold off Sale to keep up pressure at the top
Saracens kept up the pressure on Aviva Premiership Rugby leaders Harlequins with a comfortable victory at home to Sale.
David Strettle and Matt Stevens chalked up converted tries for the hosts while three Owen Farrell penalties underlined Sarries' dominance in the Vicarage Road clash.
Saracens' seventh straight league win sees them close to within four points of Harlequins at the summit, while Sale, who saw Rob Miller and Mark Easter cross for unconverted tries late on, drop to fifth.
Sale arrived with former Saracens director of rugby Steve Diamond now their executive director of sport and a mandate to return the Manchester club to their Premiership Rugby title-winning days. In the home camp stood former Lions and England fly-half Charlie Hodgson, a star of that Sale era and facing them for the first time since ending his 10-year career with the club during the summer.
Hodgson's successor Nick Macleod got the first opportunity to open the scoring when referee Martin Fox penalised Saracens for not rolling away after a tackle - but his fourth-minute penalty sailed wide.
Sale continued to press and it was Hodgson's cover-tackle that halted right wing Will Addison's break up the right. And Fox was quick to penalise the hosts at the game's first two scrums, awarding Sale penalties on both occasions for collapsing.
The opening exchanges must have pleased Diamond whose players had the reigning champions on the back-foot. So it stunned the visitors when Saracens suddenly changed gear and produced a tremendous try on 20 minutes.
Neil de Kock whipped a pass to Hodgson from the base of a ruck, and England wing Strettle timed his support-run past the fly-half's shoulder to perfection, attacking the defence on a left to right running-line to score to the right of the posts. Farrell kicked a difficult conversion to add salt to the wound.
It was Farrell again 11 minutes later when Fox decided that Sale had misbehaved at a scrum. The penalty from 30 yards flew straight between the posts.
Saracens got the hang of Sale's lineout after about 20 minutes and this proved costly. Sale opted for a five-metre lineout when awarded a 37th-minute penalty for offside, but Saracens stole it - their third pinch on a Sale throw-in.
Saracens increased their lead four minutes into the second half. Sale conceded a cheap penalty 40 yards out and it cost them three points, executed calmly by Farrell.
Andy Powell cost his team another three on 49 minutes, offside in front of Fox who promptly offered Farrell another opportunity which he accepted. Sale then got a penalty of their own with 52 minutes on the clock, but again Macleod's attempt was off target.
Saracens had things well under control after their second try in the 59th minute. Hodgson kicked a penalty to touch, Saracens claimed their lineout via skipper Steve Borthwick, drove for the line and Stevens was driven over despite a wall of defenders trying desperately to keep him out.
Farrell's conversion opened a gap that Sale would not close. They did finally get on the board after 71 minutes, rounding off a strong attacking move with a Miller try wide on the left from a pass from Tasea Lavea.
And when Easter was allowed to twist and turn his way to scoring on the right five minutes from the end, it left Sale regretting the fact that they missed two penalties and two conversions, enough to have gone home with a losing bonus point.