Jeremy Staunton kicked all Leicester’s points as the reigning champions ground out their ninth successive Aviva Premiership Rugby victory to rekindle Sale’s relegation fears.
Fly-half Staunton landed six penalties to send Leicester nine points clear at the top of the table and condemn struggling Sale to their tenth defeat of the season.
The home side claimed the only try of the game in the 50th minute when Charlie Hodgson’s brilliant long pass sent centre Chris Bell over, but Leicester responded in typical fashion to claim the points.
Sale competed gamely throughout and will feel bitterly disappointed not to have ground out a victory, although a losing bonus-point at least ensured they did not finish empty-handed.
Only a fine saving tackle from Scott Hamilton on Rob Miller secured victory for Leicester, for whom England flanker Tom Croft played 55 minutes on his first Tigers start since October 23 to step up his return from a broken shoulder and nerve damage.
Sale made a bright and purposeful start but two penalties from Staunton put the visitors 6-0 ahead by the 10th minute. Sale have struggled badly again this season but their forwards were prepared to fight fire with fire and Hodgson looked to orchestrate proceedings from behind the scrum.
The fly-half, set to join Saracens at the end of the season, kicked a penalty and then landed a well-executed drop-goal to draw Sale level by the 15th minute. Dwayne Peel also cut a lively figure for the hosts at scrum-half, but Leicester looked the greater threat with the ball in hand and fashioned a promising move in the 16th minute which nearly led to a try.
Manu Tuilagi embarked on a strong run down the right flank and a short pass inside found his elder brother Alesana advancing at pace. The Samoan’s strength, speed and desire looked certain to take him all the way to the line before Sale centre Kyle Tonetti rescued the situation with a fine tackle.
Moments later Hamilton broke forward from deep before his progress was halted just inside Sale’s 22-metre line.
Sale forward Sean Cox was shown a yellow card midway through the first half and Staunton’s third penalty restored Leicester’s advantage. However, Hodgson’s steadying influence guided Sale around the field and the Yorkshireman showed his accuracy with the boot by converting a penalty from halfway on the half hour.
Staunton missed a penalty but then converted one to edge Leicester 15-9 in front, but Sale responded in style. After Ben Cohen made inroads down the left flank, Sale kept the ball alive and Hodgson’s offload was perfectly timed for Bell to collect and crash over the line.
Hodgson’s conversion put Sale ahead for the first time but Staunton’s sixth penalty edged Leicester back in front. Sale full-back Miller burst clear down the right flank four minutes from time but Hamilton’s tackle saved the day for Leicester in a fraught finale.