Derick Hougaard extended Saracens’ lead at the top of the Guinness Premiership table with five penalties in a nail-biting battle at Vicarage Road.
The Saracens number 10 kicked five of seven attempts to secure a narrow win over Sale. The Sharks scored a first-half try through number eight Sisa Koyamaibole, while fly-half Charlie Hodgson kicked a conversion and two penalties.
Saracens began the game knowing they would lead the standings whatever the outcome following the season’s eighth league draw, with second-placed London Irish drawing 16-16 with Worcester Warriors.
Sale, still seething over the decision by Wasps not to play at Edgeley Park last weekend, were fired up for action in the driving rain, and put their unbeaten hosts under pressure from the kick-off. But when David Bishop took Alex Goode out in mid-air, the penalty into touch allowed Saracens to break from their half. And from the line-out, another penalty conceded resulted in Hougaard squeezing a fine kick just inside the right-hand post from 35 yards.
Sale’s discipline frayed in the face of powerful driving forward-play, and they wore looks of relief when Hougaard’s second penalty-kick at goal after nine minutes drifted wide.
Saracens were at Sale’s throats again in the 15th minute, winning a lineout and driving low and hard for the visitors’ line. It looked a score by Carlos Nieto, but after three minutes studying the video evidence, the fourth official ruled ‘no try’ because he could not be certain.
Alex Goode knocked on with the line feet away after a splendid pass by Hougaard and Sale were fortunate not to be considerably worse than 3-0 down. Goode was then taken out in mid-air by Neil Briggs and was led off, blood streaming from his nose. Rod Penney replaced him just as Sale finally escaped their last third of the field and managed to drive a penalty deep into Saracens territory.
The concern from the Saracens bench was audible, with considerable possession and territory yet only a 3-0 advantage. It proved justifiable as Sale broke out to snatch the lead in the 28th minute. Hodgson’s cross kick found Ben Cohen on the left, and when he was held out, the ball reached Koyamaibole and he forced himself over. Hodgson converted.
Sale immediately conceded a lazy penalty for offside and Hougaard punished them with another fine kick to make it 6-7. However, having survived a blitz for 25 minutes, Sale were now on the front-foot and Hodgson rifled over a 35th-minute penalty to extend their lead.
When the Saracens pack drove forward Sale had no answer that was legal, and Hougaard banged over his third penalty after 38 minutes to cut the scoreline back to a one-point deficit.
Hougaard restored the hosts’ lead with his fourth penalty out of five seven minutes into the second half. He missed another shot at goal, but made amends four minutes later, sweeping home a 45 yarder to make it 15-10. Hodgson pulled Sale within two points with a penalty after 74 minutes but Saracens held on.