Sale Sharks booked their spot inside the Aviva Premiership Rugby’s top six at the expense of Harlequins, thanks to a battling 21-15 victory at Newcastle Falcons.
The visitors led 15-10 at the interval with the boot of Danny Cipriani – in his final game for the club – separating the sides after Dave Seymour and Sam James’ scores were cancelled out by Nili Latu’s double.
And despite Latu completing his hat-trick with his third try from the back of a maul early in the second period, two penalties from replacement Joe Ford edged Sale clear in a nervous finale.
The hosts set out with purpose, forcing a high tempo start to the game with the Sharks under immediate pressure.
But it was Sale who fashioned the first real chance, as a brilliant kick from Cipriani to Will Addison almost saw the winger go clear – but his foot was just in touch.
And the visitors kept the momentum on five minutes, putting in a huge shove in the scrum to earn themselves a penalty which Cipriani sent into the corner, before the pack excelled again to see skipper Seymour touch down at the back of a well-executed driving maul.
Cipriani’s conversion attempt from the right touchline was just wide, but he got the opportunity to make amends after 14 minutes with a penalty in front of the posts.
That was after the TMO had ruled the Sharks had been held up over the line, and their dominant pack made Newcastle pay once again in the scrum to earn themselves an 8-0 advantage.
But the Falcons hit back soon after, with Mike Delany’s excellent restart giving Nev Edwards no room for manoeuvre.
From the resulting line-out, the fly-half’s piercing run forced Sale to infringe on their own line, and after the penalty had been sent into the corner Newcastle’s talismanic No.8 Latu peeled off the back of the maul to score.
Delany missed from the tee to keep the score at 8-5, but Sale crossed again after 24 minutes when James produced a great finish in the corner after some superb hands down the blindside.
Cipriani had warmed up his kicking boots and sent the conversion over to put the Sharks ten points ahead, although Newcastle’s Juan Pablo Socino almost immediately cut that gap but just knocked on as he tried to pilfer an interception.
But there was still time before the interval for the Falcons to score again, as Latu repeated his trick at the back of another maul to cross – but Delany was again wayward with the conversion.
Newcastle enjoyed a promising start to the second half as Dan Temm was denied a certain try by Cipriani’s tackle, with the flanker knocking on.
But following wave after wave of Falcons pressure Sale were to infringe again, and no-one at Kingston Park was surprised to see the ball put into the corner and that man Latu burrow his way over the whitewash again to level the scores at 15-15.
After replacement Ford knocked over a penalty for the Sharks, Alex Tait thought he had put Newcastle ahead only to see his try chalked off by the TMO for a knock-on in the build up.
Sale’s scrum was firing on all cylinders again, and another massive shove on 72 minutes gave Ford the opportunity to extend their lead to six, and the fly-half obliged.
But Newcastle were not going to lie down, and after Jonathan Mills was penalised for obstruction, they could kick into the corner once more to set up a grandstand finish – with the 7,000-strong Kingston Park crowd roaring them on.
They were to be denied however by supreme defence from Sale, as Neil Briggs forced the turnover and the Sharks held out to seal their spot in the Champions Cup.
If you want to be at the world’s biggest club rugby final, this year’s Aviva Premiership Rugby Final is on 28 May at Twickenham, tickets are available from premiershiprugby.com/final.