Leicester Tigers avenged their defeat by Sale Sharks in last May’s GUINNESS PREMIERSHIP final with a 35-23 victory over the Sharks in the opening round of this season’s competition. The four try victory means Tigers join Bristol as the only sides to collect maximum points in the weekend’s Round 1 games and extends their unbeaten home league record to 27 games.
England fly-half Charlie Hodgson pulled the strings for Sale with an immaculate 18-point contribution, but Leicester enjoyed a significant edge up front where captain Martin Corry and lock Ben Kay delivered towering displays. Flanker Louis Deacon and prop Alex Moreno underlined Tigers’ pack power by scoring tries after wing Geordan Murphy’s 10th-minute opener, yet the best was reserved until last.
Leicester ground Sale’s pack into the dust with time running out, and referee Tony Spreadbury’s patience snapped as the visitors tried to halt Tigers by illegal means. Hooker George Chuter and substitute prop Julian White were hailed by a capacity 16,800 crowd for dismantling the Sale front-row, and fly-half Andy Goode’s conversion saw him finish with 15 points.
Sale arrived at Welford Road with 12 of the starting line-up that demolished Leicester’s title dream in May. Centres Chris Bell and Chris Mayor, together with hooker Sebastien Bruno, were the only exceptions, while Leicester handed a Premiership debut to Italian Test prop Martin Castrogiovanni, who kept out England tighthead White.
Tigers flanker Lewis Moody missed the season opener because of an arm injury, but England’s RBS 6 Nations skipper Corry returned to action after being rested for the world champions’ Australia tour earlier this summer. Corry immediately made his presence felt at the hub of some powerful early Leicester forward charges, but Hodgson edged Sale ahead with a 45-metre penalty strike after opposite number Goode missed a sitter from in front of Sharks’ posts.
Leicester did not have to wait long for their reward though, forging ahead following accurate approach work that ended in scrum-half Scott Bemand sending Murphy diving over. Goode atoned for his initial blunder by slotting the conversion, and Sale were quickly retreating at a rate of knots when Bemand’s scintillating 60-metre break almost resulted in wing Tom Varndell – last season’s top Premiership try-scorer – sprinting over unopposed.
Sale, despite Hodgson’s best efforts, could not break out of their own half, and Leicester struck again when their patient phase-play saw the visitors’ defence eventually breached out wide as Deacon crossed unmarked.
At 12-3 adrift inside 20 minutes, serious questions were asked of the champions, but their Hodgson-inspired response had star quality written all over it. Sale conjured up 13 points in nine minutes to storm clear as Hodgson’s slashing 20-metre run produced a try for the England star that he also converted, while two penalties in quick succession meant Leicester found themselves trailing.
Hodgson proved the architect of Sale’s title triumph at Twickenham just over three months ago, and Leicester once again found him in irrepressible mood.
Tigers finished a frantic opening period by camping in Sale’s 22, but although the visitors lost lock Ignacio Fernandez-Lobbe with a shoulder injury and saw Murphy denied a second try when the video official ruled in their favour, they preserved a hard-earned advantage. Leicester though, saw enough in the first half to know they could hurt Sale by adopting a route one approach through the forwards, and they went back in front within three minutes of the restart. The Tigers’ close-quarter power proved irresistable, driven by Corry’s controlling influence, before Moreno touched down to give Sale a wake-up call. But back came the champions when Hodgson again showcased his attacking prowess to set up an imposing platform from which Bruno claimed Sale’s second try.
Hodgson converted, only for Goode to land a penalty double inside three minutes – the latter strike proving an immense 50-metre touchline effort – and Sale boss Philippe Saint-Andre summoned reinforcements as England prop Andrew Sheridan made his first appearance since recovering from a neck injury that ended his campaign midway through last season’s Six Nations.
Leicester then lost substitute Tom Croft with a leg injury, forcing replacement hooker James Buckland to pack down at number eight, but another monster Goode penalty gave them a small degree of comfort.
Goode missed two further chances as Sale had lock Chris Jones sin-binned for obstruction, and the penalty try confirmed a blistering Leicester start that will make the rest of the Premiership sit up and take notice.