Sam Vesty’s last-minute penalty allowed Leicester Tigers to creep past Sale Sharks and keep their chase for silverware on three fronts on track. With the EDF Energy Cup final and Heineken Cup semi-finals to come Pat Howard’s side went back to the top of the Guinness Premiership thanks to a hard fought victory over a battling Sale Sharks.
Lee Thomas’ boot, which brought Sale 18 points, meant the Sharks were always in touch and the visitors had to survive a heavy late pounding before coming away with the points.
Tries in each half from flankers Tom Croft and Luke Abraham kept Sale at arms length before a penalty try three minutes from time put Sale into a 25-23 lead. But Vesty’s last-gasp penalty left Phillippe Saint-Andre’s men, now winless in nine matches, still looking to secure their Guinness Premiership status and moved Leicester top of the table, above Gloucester, who play Bath on Saturday.
The hosts edged an error-strewn opening quarter but despite decent possession and territory, they were unable to open up the Tigers’ defence. Thomas, one of five players to attempt to replace Charlie Hodgson as the Sharks’ fly-half since the England international injured his knee in November, kicked two penalties and a drop-goal in response to Ian Humphreys’ early kick.
Leicester were having to play in their own half and Humphreys’ reckless pass on his own 25-metre line was indicative of the growing frustration at the pattern of play, although Sale had not made it tell on the scoreboard. However, Humphreys was injured in that passage of play and replaced by Dan Hipkiss with Vesty moving in-field just past the halfway point of the first half. Vesty brought greater authority and having closed Sale’s advantage to 9-6 with a penalty, he started a move that saw the visitors edge ahead just after the half-hour mark.
In his penultimate game at Edgeley Park, Jason Robinson looked to have brought a sweeping Leicester move to a halt with a crunching tackle on Jordan Murphy on the 25-metre line, but the ball popped up to flanker Croft, who ran in unchallenged before Thomas’ penalty made it 13-12 to the Tigers at the interval.
Thomas made no mistake with a second drop goal two minutes after the restart but another Vesty penalty restored Leicester’s lead at 16-15. But shortly after, the visitors were again rewarded for their greater inventiveness. Vesty’s cross-kick had just too much on it for left winger Tom Varndell but the Tigers pinched the resulting Sale throw. An aggressive thrust from hooker Gavin Hickie was stopped just short of the line but Abraham finished off with his first league try of the campaign.
Thomas trimmed the lead to 23-18 but missed a third kick of the evening before Sale finally began to come to life. With just over 10 minutes left Robinson finally got a chance to run as the pressure built and after Richard Wigglesworth’s penalty hit the post, the Tigers had to dig deep to defend and Leicester’s Dan Hipkiss was sin-binned with six minutes to go. After two successive scrums close to Leicester’s line, Sale were awarded a penalty try with three minutes remaining and Rhys Jones’ conversion edged the Sharks into a 25-23 lead.
But from the restart, Sale gave up a penalty 35 metres out and Vesty’s fifth successful kick from six attempts gave Leicester a decisive lead.