Champions Sale survived a ferocious second-half fightback by struggling Worcester to go top of the GUINNESS PREMIERSHIP after an absorbing encounter at Sixways.
Sharks held a 15-3 interval lead following well-worked tries for centre Chris Bell and flanker Jason White, but Worcester belied their lowly league status to trail by just two points before fly-half Charlie Hodgson settled Sale nerves.
Hodgson slotted two penalties and two conversions in front of watching England head coach Andy Robinson – he has amassed 50 points in just three games this term – although Worcester came close to recording a shock win.
Wing Aisea Havili’s second-half try, plus eight points from the boot of fly-half Shane Drahm, meant an enthralling contest never lost its flow.
Worcester though, have collected just one point from three starts, and they continue to prop up the Premiership ahead of next week’s Recreation Ground clash against Bath.
Sale knew they had been in a punishing physical battle, yet they oozed class at crucial times, and England wing Mark Cueto finished Worcester off by touching down five minutes from time.
Worcester boss John Brain made three changes from the side that blew a healthy lead at Newcastle last time out, calling up Havili, centre Dale Rasmussen and scrum-half Ryan Powell.
Sale, meanwhile, also rang the changes, as centre Mark Taylor and lock Christian Day gained their first starts of the campaign, while England Under-21 scrum-half Ben Foden was pressed into wing duties instead of groin-strain victim Steve Hanley.
The Sharks’ season had so far produced a comfortable victory over Northampton following their 35-23 loss to Leicester at Welford Road, and they went into action as firm favourites to compound Worcester’s miserable start.
Sale made all the early running, with Cueto cutting some menacing midfield angles, and Hodgson opened their account through a fourth-minute penalty.
Hodgson sent a 45-metre chance well wide 12 minutes later, but Sale ended the opening quarter eight points clear to reward their relentless pressure.
White rampaged into the heart of Worcester territory, and although the Warriors had defensive numbers in abundance, Hodgson’s expertly-placed kick saw Bell react quickest and claim Sharks’ opening try.
Hodgson failed to land the conversion, and Worcester settled themselves down when Drahm landed a penalty from a rare excursion into Sale’s 22.
It proved a false dawn though, as Sale extended their lead when a trademark charge from England prop Andrew Sheridan blasted Worcester’s defence in several directions before number Juan Martin Fernandez-Lobbe – deputising at number eight for an injured Sebastien Chabal – sent White over.
Hodgson added the extras, and Sale were halfway towards a try-scoring bonus point with 15 minutes of the first-half remaining.
Worcester stemmed the flow for a spell, mainly through Drahm’s excellent tactical appreciation, but a 12-point interval deficit meant they were left with a mountain to climb.
The feeling was that Sale still had a couple of gears in reserve, yet they spent early minutes of the second period defending before Warriors struck a retaliatory blow.
Number eight Drew Hickey was denied a try by Foden’s stunning tackle, but Worcester sharply moved possession wide and Havili utilised his strength to claim a touchdown wide out that Drahm effortlessly converted.
Sale suddenly found themselves in a contest, and their cause was hardly helped when lock Chris Jones collected his second yellow card of the season for halting a Worcester attack by illegal means and Drahm booted the resulting penalty.
Worcester were well and truly back in the hunt at 15-13 adrift, piling pressure on a Sale side that lost its way at Leicester two weeks ago when Jones was sin-binned late in the action.
The Sharks came within inches of a third try, but replacement flanker David Tait spilled possession as he crossed Worcester’s line, although referee Martin Fox had already awarded them a penalty that Hodgson eventually slotted.
Sale ended the action on top territorially, with Cueto’s corner try finally ending Worcester hopes and sending the visitors into pole position above Gloucester and Wasps.