Sale gave themselves breathing space at the bottom of the Guinness Premiership as they saw off basement side Worcester 17-3 in a crucial relegation scrap at Edgeley Park.
Worcester’s remaining home games are against sides chasing play-off or Heineken Cup qualification in the form of London Irish, Wasps and Gloucester and their penultimate fixture, away at fellow strugglers Leeds, is likely to have a big say in their destiny.
The Sharks led 9-0 at the break thanks to a penalty and two drop goals from Charlie Hodgson. Fly-half Willie Walker (twice) and wing Chris Pennell were off target with penalty attempts for the Warriors. Walker eventually got the visitors on the board with a penalty but it was not enough for Mike Ruddock’s side as Hodgson added another penalty and wing Mark Cueto crossed for a try to seal the win for the hosts.
Sale brought Welsh duo Eifion Lewis-Roberts and Lee Thomas in at prop and centre respectively following their 38-0 thumping at London Irish. England duo Cueto and Mathew Tait were included among the backs. Worcester handed a start to academy product Greg King at centre with wings Pennell and Rico Gear and hooker Chris Fortey also in the starting XV.
Hodgson missed an early chance to give the home side the lead when he pushed a 45-metre penalty to the right of the posts in the ninth minute. The Warriors looked to keep ball in hand and some powerful carries from flanker Tom Wood and lock Craig Gillies got them to within metres of the Sale line and it took a magnificent tackle from Tait to snuff out a promising attack.
Pennell then fell short with a penalty from just inside the Sale half after Lewis-Roberts was penalised for taking down the scrum and fly-half Walker was also off target just moments later as the game entered the second quarter scoreless.
The lack of confidence of both sides was making for a scrappy spectacle but Hodgson did at least get the scoreboard ticking with a 28th minute penalty after Sale had stolen a ball at the lineout. Tait then made a superb break as he eased round Worcester second row Greg Rawlinson and, although that attack ground to a halt, Hodgson made sure the Sharks got some points with a close-range drop goal.
The momentum was with the home side and Worcester’s frustration increased as Walker missed with another penalty five minutes before the break.
Scrum-half Richard Wigglesworth then sparked a Sale counter-attack after the visitors were turned over and Hodgson again took the option to put points on the board with his second drop goal 90 seconds before half-time.
Worcester looked to get back in the game straight from the restart as scrum-half Jonny Arr broke into the 22, but prop Adam Black was stopped inches short. Gear then launched another attack and this time the Warriors got on the board through a Walker penalty. But Walker then wasted a good attacking possession by fluffing a drop goal after more good work by Wood.
Tait, by far the brightest attacking spark on the field, showed good footwork to make a break in midfield but Hodgson failed to make it pay as he missed a straightforward penalty after Worcester were penalised for taking out runners as they chased the fly-half’s speculative chip.
Hodgson made amends with his second penalty in the 64th minute before another wonderful break from Tait set up the crucial try. The centre shimmied through a statuesque defence and, after he found Hodgson in support, Cueto barrelled over in the corner.
And Worcester were even denied a potential losing bonus point as replacement Chris Cracknell was stopped just short of the line by some desperate Sale defence.