A last minute score from childhood Tigers fan Leah Bartlett sealed victory for Leicester Tigers, as they claimed a historic first win in Allianz Premiership Women's Rugby.
A true battle with a physical Sale Sharks team, Tigers scored three second half tries to seal it and begin the celebrations.
As the whistle blows and Natasha Jones kicks high into a cloudy sky, the heavens open and the rain begins to stream down.
An initially messy first period, with both sides knocking on in difficult conditions, the first big cheer of the day comes when the Tigers scrum force a penalty against the head on their own 22.
Sara Tounesi has been a wrecking ball thus far and Sale give her a huge run up from the kick, which evades touch, the Italian international bouncing off a couple of tackles before being hauled down. Sale look to punch holes in Tigers midfield before shifting the ball quickly wide, fullback Amanda Swartz astute to the danger and does well to haul wing Nikita Prothero into touch.
Tigers clear their line through the boot of Claire Gallagher but the Sharks come flying back, hungry for the first score of the day. Their phase play gets them back to the Tigers 22 for the third time thus far but a big hit and astute turnover from captain Jones relieving pressure.
Both sides trade possession but it’s Tigers who strike first. With a penalty awarded, Meg Jones reacts quickest, a swift tap and go seeing the Red Rose sprint through at full pace, from inside her own half. She steps one defender and only has the fullback to beat, unselfishly opting to pop to Gallagher on her shoulder. The Canadian International gets her first Tigers try, diving under the posts, Meg’s conversion allowing Tigers to take an early seven point lead.
However, Sharks break almost immediately from kick off spotting a gap in midfield and flying through, punting the ball over the line and forcing Tigers to touch it down.
In the midst of these scores the Tigers scrum have shown immense confidence, twice ‘pulling a Springbok’ and calling for scrums well inside their own half, the first from a penalty just inside and the second, following the Sale chase, from a free kick no more than five metres out from their own line. The scrum is won and Tigers break to halfway, Tahlia Brody soaring through on a typically crashing line.
However, a few phases later, Tigers cede possession and the Sharks are ruthless. Agricultural rugby gradually inches them up the field before the force a penalty, duly kicked to and duly mauled over the line in the right-hand corner. A stellar conversion from fullback Vicky Irwin draws the scores level.
From here, Sale look to take control of the game and continue to come flying into contact, comfortable smashing up on short lines and working on incremental gains.
Tigers, equally, have come for a fight and stay staunch in defence throughout several minutes of pure tackling of pure grunt work, shots coming in across the park from a strong rush defence, the likes of Brody, Elis Martin and Morgan Richardson getting stuck to keep the home side from claiming the lead and instead winning a turnover to huge cheers.
Back and forth momentum swings; Sale make it up to the try line but Beatrice Rigoni held up by Amy Relf before Meg Jones holds up a crashing Shark. Crushingly, there’s time for one last twist before half time as the referee pulls the game back for a penalty advantage given prior to Jones’ hold up and Sale tap and go, swift hands and an outrageous floating misspass from Italian star Beatrice Rigoni exploiting space for the home side to score in the corner and end the half in the lead for the first time today.
Half time score: Sale Sharks 12 – 7 Leicester Tigers
With a late score at such a pivotal time, you may assume that Sale would be given the impetus in the second half but Tigers fly out the blocks, silky attacking interplay building up the field before Tess Feury dots down in the corner after lovely hands, drawing the scores level.
Once again, though, Sharks circle. The rain lashes down heavier and heavier by the minute and the Northerners are well in their wheelhouse, the ball rarely travelling more than one or two passes at most and the game staying tight and tough as carries crash in across the centre of the field. Eventually, the pressure tells and Sale edge back ahead with a crashing drive that sees them cross the whitewash beneath the posts.
Hear the play gets scrappy again, both sides struggling for consistency in such biblical conditions
An excellent turnover from Francesca McGhie is won with Sale Sharks entering Tigers territory but the subsequent kick to touch cedes possession not long after, the ball not straight.
Now the home side look to break quickly but substitutes Julia Omokhuale (on her for Tigers debut) and Catha Jacobs combine to level their opposite number and force a knock on, an audible ‘oooft’ coming from the stands.
Inspired, the visitors seize the initiative and attack in waves. Sale defend tightly and hold strong but Tigers are keen to whip it wide, try scorers Gallagher and Feury combining with a slick move on the right touchline to create an inch of space. But, that’s all Meg Jones needs.
From a lofted pop, Jones races onward, flying past an attempted cover tackle and dotting down in the right corner to bring Tigers back within a couple of points.
With twenty minutes to go, it’s anyone’s game and the crowd and staff can sense it, nervousness seeping around the Chester pitch. As the time ticks away and both sides struggle to make it out of midfield, it feels like there’s only time for one score left.
It’s Sale who begin to build. A canny turnover won on the stroke of halfway is kicked to touch, deep, five metres from the Tigers touchline. What transpires over these next three or four minutes is immeasurable, an amazing resilience as the Tigers defence, lead by a relentless forward pack that features a front row completing the full 80 minutes, smashing back Sale, refusing to be breached until finally holding the ball up on their own try line to huge cheers from the away bench.
From the clearance, Sale cruelly knock on and it’s Tigers turn to incrementally build; despite the conditions and their exhaustion, the side keeps the hands flowing, loads of quick pops and hard lines keeping the ball progressing up the pitch until it comes. The penalty is given, kicked to Sale’s 22 by captain Jones.
The pack drives and then splinters off, forwards piling in until finally, prop Leah Bartlett, a childhood Tigers fan, drives over to put the away side in front and seal a famous victory.
With just a minute left, the side cling on and the whistle is blown. And then, the celebrations begin.