The cutting edge of Mark Cueto and the reliable boot of Charlie Hodgson overshadowed the much-hyped battle between rugby league greats Jason Robinson and Andy Farrell as Sale squeezed to a narrow victory over Saracens at Edgeley Park.
All the talk before the game had centred on Sale’s Robinson and Saracens’ Farrell, the former Wigan team-mates who were expected to come up against each other for the first time in their glittering careers.
But with that failing to materialise – Farrell did not make it off the substitutes’ bench – the spotlight fell on England duo Cueto and Hodgson.
Cueto scored one try and set another up in an assured personal display while Hodgson booted a 19-point haul to keep the scoreboard ticking over.
Mark Taylor and Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe grabbed Sale’s other tries as The Sharks made Sarries pay for having three players yellow-carded.
But the visitors did manage to put up impressive resistance with tries through Rodd Penney, Ben Johnston and Glen Jackson, the latter knocking over 11 points from the boot.
Saracens were the only visiting team last season to come away from Edgeley Park with a win. But it was Sale who were the dominant side for the most part – even though it took them a while to force home their superiority.
Hodgson booted three penalties in the opening half hour – the first coming after just 70 seconds – but opposite fly-half Jackson kicked three himself to keep Sarries on the hosts’ coat-tails.
The hosts did manage to create a 10-point cushion by the break, but only after Sarries’ ill-discipline had put their team down to 14 men on two separate occasions.
After Johnston had tested referee Wayne Barnes’ patience one too many times – the centre was handed a spell in the cooler for deliberate offside – the Sharks made them pay by running in the first try.
Cueto, the prolific right-winger, popped up on the left channel to make a rapier thrust through a gap in the defence. The England international could have gone over himself but faced with Saracens full-back Dan Scarbrough, he chose to feed Taylor, who danced over from close range.
Hodgson converted and then, after Cobus Visagie became the second visitor to receive a yellow card, the fly-half booted his fourth penalty to give his side a 19-9 half-time lead.
Hooker Matt Cairns was the next to face the wrath of referee Barnes, in the 46th minute, as Sale’s incessant pressure proved too much for the visitors.
With the opposition, now down to 13 men, continually stretched in defence, it came as no surprise when Cueto sauntered over, again on the left, finishing off easily after play was transferred quickly to that wing.
Sale had not counted for Sarries’ amazing powers of recovery, though, although it owed much to the Sharks’ defensive vulnerability.
First Penney took advantage of some glaring space on Cueto’s wing to slide over in the 52nd minute before Johnston glided over in the centre channel with barely a finger laid on him, atoning for his earlier sin-binning.
Only one of the tries was converted by Jackson, but it made it a five-point ball game at 26-21.
The cushion was restored when Fernandez Lobbe bulldozed over from close range following a bout of sustained forward pressure.
But after substitute Richard Wigglesworth was yellow-carded for Sale, Jackson foraged over in the corner following a series of attacking phases to keep the visitors in the hunt.
Hodgson’s fifth penalty of the night, however, gave Sale an eight-point lead, one they were not to relinquish.