Sailosi Tagicakibau claimed his sixth try of the season as London Irish moved to the top of the Guinness Premiership with a hard-fought victory at Sale.
The Samoan flier struck in typically predatory fashion in the 37th minute, touching down in the left corner after a brilliant break from former Sale centre Elvis Seveali’i. However, the victory was marred by what appeared to be a serious leg injury sustained by wing Adam Thompstone early in the second half, and he was taken off on a stretcher clearly in distress.
Tagicakibau’s try had helped Toby Booth’s men into a 11-5 lead after a first half in which Sale battled gamely and briefly led when Welsh prop Eifion Roberts touched down in the 30th minute.
A penalty from Sale’s stand-in fly-half Nick Macleod cut the gap to three points shortly after the restart, but Irish – again expertly guided around the field by scrum-half Paul Hodgson – held out with relative comfort for their fourth win in five games.
The Exiles arrived at Edgeley Park in the midst of a rich run of form which had seen them claim 14 tries and average 35 points a game in their previous four outings. Although full-back Peter Hewat was off cue with early drop-goal and penalty attempts, Irish began to slowly demonstrate why they are so highly rated.
Deputy fly-half Chris Malone dovetailed effectively alongside Hodgson in midfield and a penalty from Hewat finally got the visitors off the mark in the 23rd minute.
Yet Sale, now without a win since their opening-day victory against Leicester, fashioned an initially impressive response. Samoan centre Andy Tuilagi embarked on a delightful jinking run which took him from inside his own half and past a clutch of Irish defenders.
His progress was eventually halted, but on the half-hour mark Sale’s purple patch was translated into points when Roberts emerged from a thicket of players to touch down after excellent play from the home pack. Macleod, handed a rare start at No 10 in the absence of the injured Charlie Hodgson and Lee Thomas, failed to convert the try and the pendulum quickly swung back in Irish’s favour.
In the 37th minute, a brilliant run down the left channel by Seveali’i cut the home side to pieces and he showed intelligence to usher the supporting Tagicakibau over in the corner. The try capped a breathtaking move which summed up the Exiles, though Hewat’s conversion attempt rebounded off a post before he added a penalty from distance shortly before half-time.
Sale director of rugby Kingsley Jones was not happy with the officiating during the first half and made his displeasure known during the break. His players showed similar fire to pin Irish back after the restart and a penalty from Macleod soon cut the gap to three points.
Thompstone was lost to a serious leg injury but Irish were dominant at the breakdown and had few problems keeping Sale at bay. Indeed, genuine tryscoring opportunities grew scarce for both sides, but Irish were forced to hold on in the closing stages after replacement Peter Richards was sent off following a clash with Neil Briggs.
Sale – who now face a demanding Heineken Cup clash in Toulouse – could not make their numerical advantage pay and were left with only a losing bonus point to show for their efforts.