Leicester extended their unbeaten home record to 24 matches but made desperately hard work of subduing depleted Guinness Premiership rivals Sale at a packed Welford Road.
Sale made 11 changes to the side that started last week’s Heineken Cup game against Harlequins but they made the home side graft for their victory.
Leicester did not claim the bonus point until the final play of the game when number eight Jordan Crane drove over after a succession of scrums close to Sale’s line. That was the only score of the final quarter, even though Leicester scored their third try through Lewis Moody after 59 minutes.
Sale – who included rookie centre Jonny Kennedy, the son of club owner Brian – defended tenaciously but could not convert their own attacking opportunities into a try and had to rely on two Charlie Hodgson penalties for their points. Leicester led from the eighth minute when England international Toby Flood kicked a penalty after Sale went in at the side of a ruck.
The opening score might have been expected to settle the hosts, instead Johne Murphy put his team-mates under pressure by making a terrible hash of tidying up a loose ball and carelessly conceded a five metres scrum. Leicester repelled that raid but a weak clearance kick from Flood allowed Sale to attack again but Hodgson squandered a chance to level the scores when he pushed a kickable penalty attempt wide.
It proved a costly lapse as Murphy made up for his earlier error by getting on the end of a fluent handling move and going over for the first try which Flood, whose conversion struck an upright, narrowly failed to improve.
With flanker James Gaskell outstanding in the loose and lineout, Sale competed for longer than expected but it required some desperate defensive work to keep them in the game. Another well-worked move appeared to have created an overlap for Craig Newby but Sale scrambled back and the former All Blacks flanker was penalised for not releasing.
Newby compounded his error when referee JP Doyle caught him handling in a ruck which allowed Hodgson to open Sale’s account with a long range penalty which was swiftly cancelled out by Flood’s second.
Sale silenced most of a 24,000 sell-out crowd when former England winger Ben Cohen touched down after clever interplay with Oriol Ripol but the try was disallowed after touch judge Don Helme spotted a knock-on earlier in the move.
Flood put a long distance penalty attempt wide with the final kick of the first half and driving rain during the break made conditions difficult for the second period. But a greasy surface and slippery ball did not prevent lock Ben Kay rumbling over for Leicester’s second try, which Flood converted.
However, Sale would not lie down. Hodgson found gaps in the home side’s defence with a clever run from his own 22 deep into Leicester territory and Fijian full-back Marika Vakacegu also ghosted through. But the visitors failed to finish off those attacks and Leicester made them pay when England flanker Moody, their captain for the day, was driven over from a lineout and Flood again converted.
Sale looked like denying Leicester the bonus point but their scrum came under increasing pressure and when replacement prop Rob O’Donnell was sin-binned in the last minute they were ill-equipped to deny Crane. The biggest cheers of the afternoon were reserved for Harry Ellis and Sam Vesty, two England backs returning from long-term injuries, when they came on as second half replacements for Leicester.