Leicester Tigers suffered a second home defeat of 2020 – and were denied a consolation point by a last-minute penalty – when Sale Sharks claimed a 40-31 bonus-point victory on Saturday in Round 18 of the Gallagher Premiership campaign.
In the third home game played behind closed doors since the season’s restart after the COVID-19 closedown, Tigers trailed 9-20 at half-time with three penalties from George Ford in reply to scores from AJ MacGinty and Manu Tuilagi on his first return to Welford Road.
Hanro Liebenberg’s first try for the club put some wind in the home side’s sails approaching midway in the second half as Tigers got within eight points.
Sale looked back in control as they claimed their fourth score before Jake Kerr’s converted try and some concerted pressure in the closing stages led to a try for Tigers full-back Freddie Steward which made it 31-37 with two minutes still to play.
But, forced to play from deep at the restart, Tigers were penned back and, when the whistle blew at a breakdown, Sharks added the three points to deny the losing bonus point.
Tigers retained only Tomás Lavani and Charlie Clare from the starting line-up at Gloucester in Round 17 to face a Sale team who started the weekend in second place before wins for Wasps and Bristol saw them kick off in fourth spot.
Ford got the game under way in bright sunshine, with Tigers attacking the Robin Hood Stand End and his well-placed cross-kick on five minutes almost brought a breakthrough as Nemani Nadolo hooked high ball back into his left hand but then saw his offload bounce off Jaco Taute in support just a metre from the tryline.
Scrum-half Faf de Klerk put Sharks in front, landing a drop goal from 20 metres with nine minutes gone on the clock as Sharks played with advantage from a knock-on at a lineout on their right.
Tigers captain Ford levelled immediately when Ben Youngs tapped a penalty as Sharks retreated from the restart and, when referee Ian Tempest whistled for offside, the fly-half opened his account from 25 metres.
Sharks, though, came back to score their first try just after the quarter-hour, making the most of a succession of penalties to create a gap for MacGinty to go over, and he also added the conversion for a 10-3 lead.
From the restart, No8 Daniel du Preez was penalised for a block and Ford kicked the points.
Under pressure from a Sharks lineout, Tigers defended strongly with Tomas Lavanini and then Ellis Genge stepping in with tackles before winning a turnover on the floor. But the referee took play back to check the tackle from the Argentina international lock and, adjudging there had been no attempt to wrap arms as he met Akker van der Merwe, gave Sharks the penalty and issued a warning.
MacGinty hooked the kick wide but a second try came just three minutes later as De Klerk's penalty took play into the right-hand corner and, after play had been stopped for a head injury to Luke Wallace, an attacking scrum provided the platform to find Tuilagi who barged over under the posts. MacGinty’s kick made it 17-6 in the visitors’ favour.
The restart again brought a Tigers penalty and again Ford added the three points.
The whistle continued to punctuate play, with Tigers receiving a team warning as the referee twice played advantage before bringing play back for MacGinty to stretch the lead following a tackle off the ball.
Tigers had been starved of meaningful possession and had to defend as Rohan Jense van Rensburg showed his physical strength on the left before Taute took his fellow South African into touch and then Tuilagi spilled a toe-high pass on the right as the visitors reached half-time 11 points in front.
They increased that lead early in the second half after a break in midfield gave space to Denny Solomona on the right and, although Ben Youngs took him down, Sharks kept ball alive with Lood De Jager and Marland Yarde, for skipper Jono Ross to force his way over to the left of the posts. MacGinty added the kick to make it 9-27.
But Tigers claimed the next 10 points to drag themselves back into the contest.
First, Hanro Liebenberg supplied a try as the No8 charged down De Klerk's clearance 20 metres out and fielded the bounce to dive in under the posts for his first score for the club.
Ford kicked the extras and then added a penalty in front of the posts after another error in the Sharks defence, being guilty of throwing loose ball in their own 22 as Tigers pounced.
The gap was down to eight points for just a few moments, though, as De Klerk nailed a 40-metre penalty to make it 19-30 and Tigers were stopped by the whistle again as they looked to build some pressure from the restart kick.
Sale, though, got forward to claim their bonus-point score, showing composure and accuracy as Solomona dotted down in the left corner with 17 minutes remaining. MacGinty’s conversion from wide out made it 19-37.
Tigers replied as replacement hooker Kerr steered a maul over the line to provide hope of taking something from the game again entering the final 10 minutes and Ford made it six from six attempts off the tee at 26-37.
A strong carry from Ellis Genge, who bounced back to his feet through a tackle, took Tigers close to the line again. Although ball was eventually lost forward, the referee was alerted to an offside in the defensive line and Tigers chose to scrum five metres out.
Another penalty followed after Nephi Leatigaga attacked the line, but this time from the tap ball was knocked forward and chance gone with just under five minutes remaining.
Tigers kept going, though, and stayed on the ball to allow Steward to claim his first Premiership try, forcing his way over on the right to take the score within seven points.
It looked like providing some reward from the game but then, at the restart, Tigers were dealt a final blow when a penalty allowed MacGinty to chip another three points and give Sharks a nine-point margin.