Nick Macleod’s last-minute penalty earned Sale Sharks a pulsating 33-33 draw against London Irish – a result which goes a long way to securing both side’s Aviva Premiership status.
The hosts had Guy Armitage, Halani Aulika and Max Lahiff crossing the whitewash and moved themselves 12 points clear of bottom side London Welsh.
But that was trumped by the visiting Sharks who left the Madejski Stadium with a share of the spoils and two bonus points, giving them an eight-point cushion over Welsh.
Tries from Henry Thomas, Mark Cueto, Kearnan Myall and James Gaskell did the damage for the visitors, but the hosts were straight out of the blocks and Armitage had the game’s first try after just three minutes.
Return wing Sailosi Tagicakibau was the catalyst, barging his way to within a metre of the try-line, but the ball was offloaded to Armitage who burrowed over from close range.
Tom Homer added the extras but Sale’s Macleod also got in on the act with a long-range three-pointer on six minutes after George Skivington was penalised.
But powerful prop Aulika showed his finishing prowess on nine minutes when he burst 40 yards, handed off Charlie Amesbury, and touched down for his fourth Aviva Premiership try of the season.
Again Homer was successful with the conversion and Irish had a 14-3 lead after only ten minutes.
Sale began to play their way back into the game and, helped by David Paice’s yellow card midway through the first half, they were rewarded for going for broke instead of the three points.
A well-worked lineout saw Thomas bundle his way across the whitewash and Macleod’s conversion brought the Sharks within four points of their hosts.
They were not finished there, with Paice still kicking his heels on the sidelines Irish were dragged from right to left before Cueto grabbed Sale’s second try in a matter of minutes.
Macleod missed the conversion but the visitors had the lead for the first time, 15-14.
In an end-to-end encounter, it was no surprise when Irish regained the lead on the half hour mark – Homer notching his first penalty of the afternoon from 30 yards, then adding another two minutes later from the halfway line.
The full-back had the chance to make it three from three but he sliced the easiest of his kicks wide, before losing the ball metres from his own try-line seconds before the half-time whistle.
Cueto offered a good chase, and when the ball fell from the hands of Homer, Johnny Leota was on hand to charge towards the line.
The ball was recycled and Cameron Shepherd found lock Myall on the right wing who crossed to level the scores. Macleod’s brilliant conversion gave Sale their first half-time lead of the Aviva Premiership season.
That was extended five minutes after the restart when Macleod slotted home a penalty from 45 yards and things got even better for the visitors when Gaskell crossed to secure the bonus point on 46 minutes.
Amesbury stole the ball from Tagicakibau, broke 70 yards and following quick ball, No. 8 Gaskell bulldozed his way through. Macleod missed a difficult kick but Sale opened up a ten-point cushion at 30-20.
But that was reduced on 53 minutes when prop Lahiff forced his way under the posts for Irish’s third try – after confirmation from the TMO. Homer did the honours from the tee and the hosts were back to within three points.
Two minutes later the scores were level once more, Homer lining up another long-range penalty to the delight of the Madejski faithful.
Tommy Taylor was then brought back for a high tackle and Homer was again on target – 33-30 to Irish.
Unsurprisingly given the frantic nature of the game, players were beginning to tire and it showed from the tee – Homer and Macleod skewed efforts wide in the closing stages but Macleod had the final say with a successful penalty to end a thrilling clash at the foot of the table.