Alex Lewington’s try double proved vital as London Irish dented Sale Sharks’ hopes of an Aviva Premiership Rugby top-six finish with a thrilling victory at the Madejski Stadium.
In a game where momentum did not just ebb and flow but veer wildly between both sides, Sale took an early lead through Tom Arscott’s try before Irish fly-half Chris Noakes landed two penalties.
Sale fullback Mike Haley then crossed over moments before the interval only to then fumble the last play of the half and allow Andrew Fenby to score as the visitors trailed 13-10 at the break.
Irish had already seen Tom Court sent to the bin before Blair Cowan then followed after the restart as Cipriani levelled and helped set up Arscott for his second try to make it 20-13.
Chris Cusiter and Topsy Ojo both spent ten minutes on the sidelines for Sale and Irish respectively, but the reduced numbers suited the hosts as Lewington scored two tries in quick succession to ultimately secure his side’s first back-to-back league victories since February 2014.
The hosts made a careless start to the game, conceding a penalty close to their own try line as debutant Richard Palframan tackled Cipriani off the ball and the fly-half kicked to the corner.
Sale secured the subsequent lineout and recycled the ball to work an overlap out on the right for winger Arscott to go over after just three minutes, with Cipriani missing the tough conversion attempt.
A tap-and-go then saw Irish bursting clear downfield with Palframan denied by the covering Sale defence, but referee Greg MacDonald came back for a prior infringement and Noakes landed his attempt to make it 5-3 after 17 minutes.
And the fly-half put the Exiles ahead for the first time moments later as he knocked over his second penalty after Sale were penalised at the scrum in their own 22.
After a cagey period with several reset scrums, Irish prop Court was sent to the bin for collapsing a maul as Sale looked to drive over from close range.
Sale soon exploited their advantage, securing a five-metre lineout and working the ball quickly left for Haley to cross over, but Cipriani erred from the tee on 38 minutes.
Yet it was Irish who took an unlikely 13-10 lead into the interval as Noakes’ penalty attempt fell short only for Haley to fumble Cipriani’s pass, allowing Fenby to steal in and touch down – Noakes adding the extras.
The hosts undermined a bright start to the second half by going back down to 14 men moments after Court rejoined, with Cowan sinbinned for illegally impeding Cusiter as Cipriani levelled the game at 13-13.
That yellow card proved immediately costly for Irish as Sale won a scrum against the head and swept wide for Arscott to run in unopposed for his second try and Cipriani’s conversion made it 20-13.
Irish thought they had secured an immediate response, only for the TMO to rule the ball was not grounded following a close-range maul but the hosts were boosted by a yellow card shown to Cusiter.
And with Cowan readying himself to come back on, the Exiles worked an impressive overlap to put Lewington over in the left corner but Noakes could not convert.
A remarkable fourth yellow card of the afternoon soon followed though as Ojo was sinbinned for a dangerous tackle.
Yet 14-a-side rugby seemed to suit the hosts as Lewington exploited the space left by the absent Cusiter to break a tackle and score his second try under the posts, Noakes converting to make it 25-20 just before the hour.
Sale went back up to full strength first and used their advantage to secure a penalty from a rolling maul as Cipriani bisected the posts and reduced the deficit to two points.
The hosts then had a chance to extend their lead after the Sharks infringed at the scrum but Noakes failed to convert with just five minutes remaining.
Cipriani then took his side back up to the Irish 22 but the hosts remained resolute in defence to secure a vital penalty and deny Sale a first league double over the Exiles for nine years.