Leicester stormed back to the top of the GUINNESS PREMIERSHIP with a stunning maximum points win at Welford Road, even though they had to play three-quarters of the game with only 14 men after England prop Julian White was sent off.
White was sent off for the fourth time in his career for punching his international team-mate Andrew Sheridan as the two packs broke up from a 23rd minute scrum. White’s punch appeared to be retaliatory but referee Wayne Barnes showed him a red card after consulting with touch judge Robin Goodliffe.
Sheridan was jeered when he was substituted late in the second half and stopped to remonstrate with a spectator before he went into the dugout. Instead of ending their victory hopes, White’s sending-off appeared to galvanise Leicester, who scored three tries after he departed to deny Sale a fourth straight league win over them.
The game, the last to be played at Welford Road before the Caterpillar – formerly Members – Stand is demolished, produced some dazzling rugby and eight tries but it was Scott Hamilton’s second midway through the second half which sealed an unlikely win.
With England manager Martin Johnson and British and Irish Lions head coach Ian McGeechan in the crowd there were summer tour places to play for and Leicester hit Sale hard from the start when Alex Tuilagi steamrollered his opposite number Oriol Ripol and drove over.
Charlie Hodgson and Toby Flood then traded penalties before Sale pulled level again with a superbly-crafted try when Hodgson delivered a delayed pass which allowed Mark Cueto to plough over under the posts and leave Hodgson with an easy conversion.
Flood briefly left the field for treatment to a wound and Sam Vesty, who moved to fly-half from the centre, immediately made his presence felt with a stunning run which split the defence. Replacement Ayoola Erinle was hauled down short of the line but Leicester recycled the ball and Vesty put Scott Hamilton over for the try which he then improved. But White’s sending-off forced Leicester to take off number eight Ben Pienaar to allow Martin Castrogiovanni to fill the gap in their front row.
Leicester tried to lift their game to compensate for being a man down but Sale’s England centre Mathew Tait found another gap in their defence with a clever run and Nick Macleod’s pass allowed Cueto to cut through for his second try just before the break.
Hodgson nudged Sale in front for the first time with a long-range penalty two minutes into the second half but Flood swiftly cancelled that out. Sale appeared to have taken the initiative when Neil Briggs sprinted clear for a 49th-minute try after Tuilagi gambled on intercepting Tait’s floated pass which left the Sale flanker with a clear run to the line. But they had reckoned without Leicester’s iron resolve in adversity and their ability to turn defence into quick attack.
A flowing move, started by England flanker Tom Croft and sustained by Tuilagi, was superbly finished by Dan Hipkiss which levelled the scores. Flood’s deft chip was then gathered by Hamilton for the bonus point try and Vesty ended Sale’s resistance when he sliced through for a superb solo effort.
The visitors salvaged a losing bonus point with two further penalties from Hodgson.