Saracens took a huge step towards qualification for the Guinness Premiership play-offs with a compelling victory over hosts Sale at Edgeley Park.
The visitors consolidated third place in the table, which would earn them an away semi-final next month, but defeat leaves Sale still in danger of relegation. The Sharks remain third from bottom, but the two sides below them – Leeds and Worcester – are in action in separate games in hand tomorrow.
Dry conditions and a firm pitch in Stockport encouraged running-rugby on a pleasant spring evening. Sisa Koyamaibole crossed for Sale after 10 minutes, but Chris Wyles struck back on 22, before Charlie Hodgson’s boot established a 16-13 half-time advantage for the hosts.
Saracens dominated the second period, deservedly going in front through full-back Alex Goode’s try on 49 minutes, but initially could not put the game to bed. However, centre Brad Barritt’s try five minutes from time made the points safe.
Sale director of rugby Kingsley Jones named an unchanged side from last Friday’s vital home win against fellow strugglers Worcester for this re-run of early January’s postponed encounter.
Saracens made five changes from Saturday’s one-point defeat at Gloucester. Justin Marshall and Derick Hougaard were director of rugby Brendan Venter’s chosen half-back pair, while prop Matias Aguero, lock Tom Ryder and flanker Justin Melck also returned.
Hougaard kicked Sarries ahead with an early penalty. The visitors then put several phases together and the fly-half doubled their lead with another straightforward kick.
Sale centre Lee Thomas was wide with a penalty from his own half, but flanker Koyamaibole made amends a minute later when he spotted a gap to burrow over from close range on the right. Hodgson slotted the conversion to put the Sharks in front.
Hougaard then shanked a drop-goal attempt and pushed a central penalty to the left of the posts. However, just as Sale had after Jones’ miss, Saracens immediately crossed when Wyles broke two tackles on the left wing to touch down in the corner. Hougaard nailed a tricky touchline conversion, but it was his last contribution as he was replaced by Glen Jackson.
Hodgson’s penalty soon narrowed the gap before Marshall’s dangerous dart into Sale’s 22 came to nothing. Hodgson was again on target moments later to level the score. He soon restored the hosts’ lead with a neat drop-goal. It could have been better for Sale, but Jones missed with another penalty from beyond halfway and Hodgson put a much easier kick wide on the stroke of half-time.
The fly-half was back on target five minutes into the second half with a central penalty and Goode, tasked with kicking duties ahead of Jackson, missed an opportunity to halve the deficit when he struck the right post from a penalty.
The sequence of a missed penalty followed by a try followed for a third time when Saracens advanced down the right and Goode went under the posts. He converted to edge his side in front.
The visitors pressed again and went further clear via a simple Goode penalty. He was later narrowly wide with a long-range effort from out on the right. Sarries continued to dominate, but could not turn pressure into points as Jackson’s 35-metre drop-goal struck the upright.
However, Barritt made the game safe when he finished off substitute Jacques Burger’s break down the right. Goode converted. Sale desperately searched for a losing bonus point late on but, like their opponents earlier in the half, could not make the territory tell.