A bonus-point win which secured their Guinness Premiership status and the return of Jonny Wilkinson made for an excellent day for Newcastle Falcons against Sale Sharks at Kingston Park.
The 32-21 win condemns Leeds Tykes to relegation from English rugby’s top flight and means the Falcons can look forward to next week’s European Challenge Cup semi-final against London Irish with some confidence.
Wilkinson, making his first appearance since November and his sixth comeback from injury since the 2003 World Cup triumph, made some neat contributions after coming on as a second-half replacement.
The return from England Sevens duty of Mathew Tait also boosted the Falcons, for whom Tom May scored two tries. Andy Long and Geoff Parling also scored.
Matthew Burke added 12 points with the boot in an entertaining game against an under-strength Sale outfit.
With one eye on the play-offs, Sale director of rugby Philippe Saint-Andre made 12 changes to the side which beat Gloucester at Edgeley Park last weekend.
In the absence of England internationals Charlie Hodgson, Mark Cueto and Andrew Sheridan, the Sharks looked distinctly lacking in ideas, although they competed manfully until midway through the second half.
Despite the changes, the Sharks were quickly into their stride, opening the scoring in the fifth minute with a try from second-row Ignacio Fernandez Lobbe.
Sharks winger Oriol Ripol returned a stray Falcons clearance with interest and, after some neat interplay between backs and forwards, the ball was moved left to Chris Day, who fed his second-row partner to score in the corner. Valentin Courrent made it 7-0.
Falcons full-back Burke exchanged a brace of penalties with Courrent to make the score 13-6 with 12 minutes of the half remaining.
Sharks lost prop Eifion Roberts, making his first start for the club, to the sin bin in the 33rd minute for deliberate offside and the home side took immediate advantage when Long bossed a rolling maul and crashed over the line for a try.
Burke’s conversion levelled the scores at 13-13 before Jason Robinson followed up last week’s match-winning effort against Gloucester with another cheekily taken drop goal to edge the Sharks in front.
Wilkinson’s appearance after the break in place of Mark Mayerhofler was greeted with an enormous ovation from the 9,018-strong crowd.
But it was the Sharks who struck first when Ripol was given some space down the right and skipped past three Falcons defenders before diving over in the corner. Courrent was unable to convert.
Newcastle’s response was swift and effective, as substitute prop Jonny Williams embarked on a rampaging run before passing to Mike McCarthy who in turn fed the supporting May on the inside for the winger to fly over under the posts.
Burke’s conversion narrowed the gap to one point.
May’s second try of the afternoon was even better. The ball was zipped left and right across the field, going through at least 10 pairs of Newcastle hands before May popped up in the centre to wriggle his way over. Burke’s fifth successful kick of the afternoon put the Falcons ahead for the first time.
Sale lost their second player to the bin in the 65th minute when Sililo Martens was penalised for killing the ball, and Newcastle again took advantage with Geoff Parling crashing over for a bonus point try.