Lee Thomas kicked five penalties as Sale ground out a famous victory over reigning GUINNESS PREMIERSHIP champions Leicester.
Sale defied the critics to record a win founded on obstinate defending, collective desire and remarkable spirit.
Leicester are being widely tipped to retain their domestic crown this season but they struggled to create genuine try-scoring opportunities at a rain-lashed Edgeley Park in front of the watching England manager and Tigers legend Martin Johnson.
And for all the gloom surrounding Sale going into the new season, following a mass exodus of key players, there were positives to emerge from this encounter. Sale director of rugby Kingsley Jones handed starting roles to debutants to Ben Cohen, Sisa Koyamaibole and Jack Forster while another two new recruits, Gavin Kerr and Mahonri Schwalger, were named among the replacements.
Leicester, without their Lions pair of Tom Croft and Harry Ellis but boosted by debutants Jeremy Staunton and Anthony Allen, began with all their usual aggression and purpose up front. Their early swagger hinted at their pedigree as champions yet Sale’s pack, including 6ft 7in, 19-year-old James Gaskell, were far from overawed and their hunger was obvious from the first whistle. And with Charlie Hodgson typically emerging as a key figure at fly-half, and Cohen on one wing and Mark Cueto on the other, Sale looked to have the ammunition to penetrate the Tigers.
Hodgson missed a penalty from 40 metres in the ninth minute and opposite number Staunton put Leicester ahead with a three-pointer of his own four minutes later. The lead was short-lived as Welsh centre Thomas assumed kicking duties and landed the first of his three first-half penalties. Thomas added his second three-pointer shortly before the half-hour mark after Leicester’s Louis Deacon was sin-binned for persistent infringement.
With Hodgson a growing influence on the game with a steady stream of intricate offloads deep in Leicester territory, Sale threatened to make the breakthrough. It did not arrive, however, and a brilliant break from deep inside his own half from Leicester full-back Geordan Murphy led to a sweeping move which saw the ball pass through five pairs of hands.
The Tigers advanced down the left flank and although the move was halted, the visitors kept the ball alive and a spell of sustained pressure forced a penalty which Staunton converted to reduce Sale’s lead to three points at the break.
The Sharks’ 9-6 interval lead was wiped out two minutes after the restart when Staunton’s third penalty drew Leicester level but two more penalties from Thomas edged Sale 15-9 ahead by the 53rd minute. Sale introduced Mathew Tait, another player aiming to impress Johnson, shortly before the hour mark, and moments later Thomas spurned an opportunity to stretch his side’s lead when he kicked a penalty wide.
Staunton’s fourth penalty cut the gap to three points with 10 minutes remaining and a spell of late Leicester pressure saw Staunton have the chance to level, but he sent his penalty wide from near to the touchline. That ensured Leicester began their campaign in defeat and with only the consolation of a losing bonus point to show for their efforts.