Charlie Hodgson kicked Sale to a priceless 15-12 victory as an agonising loss sent bottom side Leeds ever closer to relegation from Aviva Premiership Rugby.
Fly-half Hodgson, 30, landed five penalties from as many attempts to settle a fraught encounter in which Neil Back’s side fully played their part. Leeds, who have spent the season rooted to the foot of the table, claimed well-worked tries from Henry Fa’afili and Michael Stephenson and were largely dominant up front in the opening half.
However, Hodgson, who has dug Sale out of so many holes in his 11 years at Edgeley Park, converted three penalties before the break and another two after the restart to ease his side’s own relegation fears.
Sale will sorely miss Hodgson when he joins Saracens at the end of the season and how Leeds must wish they had a player with such unerring accuracy in their boots. Hodgson’s opposite number Adrian Jarvis missed three penalties in the opening 40 minutes – two of which cruelly rebounded off a post – and then failed to convert Stephenson’s late try.
A 15th defeat from 17 matches means another great escape is surely beyond Back’s men, although a losing bonus point at least offers a glimmer of hope.
After Hodgson put Sale ahead in the third minute, Leeds quickly steadied themselves and fashioned an impressive response. After several phases deep inside the home side’s 22, Leeds worked the ball from left to right and Daniel Browne, Phil Swainston and Scott Mathie were all involved in a sweeping move which culminated in Fa’afili crossing in the corner.
Jarvis added a fine conversion and Leeds showed their mettle at the other end of the field moments later when Ben Cohen almost went over, only to be hauled into touch by Stephenson’s fine cover tackle. It was exactly the kind of spirit needed from Leeds, although fortune deserted them in the 18th minute when a penalty from Jarvis rebounded off the post.
Tensions mounted midway through the half as England hooker Steve Thompson and opposite number Neil Briggs squared up to one another, although no punches were exchanged. In the 24th minute, Hodgson landed a mammoth penalty from inside his own half and three minutes later Jarvis saw another penalty attempt hit the woodwork.
Sale began to dominate territory and some stout defending from Leeds kept them at bay before Hodgson’s third penalty in the 37th minute put the hosts 9-7 ahead at the break.
Leeds centre Luther Burrell, poised to join Sale at the end of the season, went close three minutes after the restart before Hodgson’s fourth penalty. Sale began to dominate and another fine penalty from Hodgson stretched their lead in the 55th minute.
Leeds did enjoy a period of sustained pressure thereafter but struggled to make it pay as Sale defended stoutly. But with three minutes remaining Stephenson finished off a break in the left corner and, although Jarvis missed the conversion, Leeds deservedly went home with a losing bonus point.