Leicester Tigers secured a seventh away win of the Aviva Premiership season to guarantee a top-six place and a European Champions Cup slot with a 35-13 bonus-point triumph over Sale Sharks on Saturday.
Needing a point at the AJ Bell Stadium to guarantee their place in Europe’s top club competition, Tigers made an early breakthrough with a ninth try of the season from Jonah Holmes, but led by just a point at half-time after two successful penalties from AJ McGinty and two which came back off the posts from George Ford.
Ford grabbed his first try of his second spell at the club after the break, showing good pace and awareness in support of a Ben Youngs break
Sharks brought it back to a one-score game before Mike Williams claimed his first try for the club from another enterprising attack and, despite a late sale score, Ford landed a drop goal to keep their rivals at arm’s length in the sunshine before Holmes grabbed his second of the day and 10th of the season in the last play.
Tigers brought Holmes, Mathew Tait and Mike Williams into the starting line-up in place of Adam Thompstone and the injured Matt Toomua and Luke Hamilton, while George McGuigan received a call-up to the bench after injury ruled out skipper Tom Youngs.
Wayne Barnes, Premiership Rugby’s most experienced match official and this week confirmed as the man in charge of this season’s European Champions Cup Final, was in charge of a top-flight fixture for the 199th time as Mike Haley and Will Addison led Sharks out in their final appearances for the club.
After having to defend their own 10-metre line in the opening stages, smart carries from Tatafu Polota-Nau, Tuilagi, Dan Cole and then Graham Kitchener got Tigers on the attack but the opening was lost as ball was lost 20 metres out.
From there, Faf de Klerk made a threatening break before Tigers managed to shut him down on halfway, and Sharks were forced into a change after Addison pulled up and Luke James replaced him at centre.
A break from Ford found Polota-Nau in support, but his offload travelled forward and referee Barnes brought the game to a pause.
There was no halting Tigers progress from the next attack, though, with Holmes providing the score after good work along the backline from Tuilagi, Tait and Jonny May. Holmes still had the strength to roll over in contact to reach the line and Ford added the extras for a seven-point lead with 11 minutes played.
Sharks were happy to put the ball through hands around halfway and had a first sight of the posts when Ellis Genge was ruled offside 35 metres out and AJ McGinty got them on the scoreboard with the kick.
Holmes then showed his strength in defence, taking a De Klerk kick on the right touchline, though he just couldn’t find the offload as Brendon O’Connor arrived on his shoulder with the Sharks defence struggling to cover.
A spell of pressure from Sharks started with a penalty into the left-hand corner, with Ford called into defensive action as hooker Rob Webber broke off a maul just five metres out. Tigers were then penalised as they defended on the line and McGinty cut the gap to a single point with the kick on 26 minutes.
Sale tighthead WillGriff John was penalised for going to ground at a scrum, but Ford’s kick came back off the left-hand post and the score remained 6-7.
Tigers got reward at the next scrum too, pushing the Sharks front row upwards near halfway, and Ford took play upfield on the right. But possession was lost after a safe catch at the lineout and the chance to build some pressure was gone.
Sharks showed their imagination at an attacking lineout on the right, with De Klerk taking possession at pace before the defence closed in quickly and forced a handling error.
Polota-Nau was hurt in contesting that breakdown but was back on his feet for the scrum and referee Barnes again blew in Tigers’ favour as the Sharks front row went to the floor.
Ford had to be alive to another dart from De Klerk near halfway and Holmes made an immaculate read of a break from McGinty to intercept what looked like a potential scoring pass to the Sharks scrum-half just 20 metres out.
Sharks collapsed a maul at as Tigers lineout and, with just 30 seconds left in the first half, Ford called for the tee. Kicking from the thin strip of shade near the right-hand touchline, his attempt hit the outside of the near post and De Klerk cleared the rebound into touch with Tigers one point in front at half-time.
Ford got the second half underway within two minutes supplied the second try of the day, bursting on to a break from Youngs and showing two defenders a clean pair of heels to dive in under the posts. The fly-half added the kick to put Tigers 14-6 in front.
Minutes later, the fly-half threatened again, finding a gap in midfield, but this time his pass to the right wing couldn’t pick out Holmes.
A smart turnover win from O’Connor averted danger for Tigers as Sharks ran out from their own 22, and when the hosts were pinged at the tackle area, Ford made no mistake with his penalty to make it 17-6 in Tigers’ favour with eight minutes gone in the second half.
Sharks kicked straight out from the restart and Tigers elected to scrum back on halfway. Sale made a change in the front row with Halani Aulika on at tighthead but he was immediately penalised and Ford kicked to the left touchline.
Back-row replacement Ben Curry was penalised at the lineout and Ford pointed to goal again. His kick made it 20-6 in the visitors’ favour.
But Sharks replied immediately with a try from Marland Yarde, their first visit to the scoreboard since the 26th minute.
The score actually came from a promising position for Tigers, with Telusa Veainu squirming away on his own 22 and taking play 50 metres upfield. But spilled ball as he looked for support gave Sharks a chance to counter-attack, and when Holmes stepped in to make the tackle, Yarde arrived in support to score. The conversion from McGinty made it 13-20.
The home crowd started to play their part and Sharks got some wind in their sails, but O’Connor stepped in at a breakdown and won a penalty for Tigers near halfway to relieve the pressure.
A tidy lineout take set up a driving maul and Tigers were making good ground when Sharks were penalised. A second drive gave Genge a chance to break off the edge of another maul but Sharks won a penalty on their own line as they took him down.
McGuigan joined the Tigers front row on the hour mark and he had to quickly get up to speed in defence as Sharks started to build some phases just inside the visitors’ half. O’Connor was again prominent as Tigers won a penalty at another breakdown before Logo Mulipola joined the fray for his 100th Premiership appearance with Cole making way after 62 minutes.
More good work from Ford, taking an attack up the blindside, before Tigers opened up infield, brought a first-ever try for the club for Williams, providing the finish after May made the break. Ford added the kick to make it 27-13.
It was a last involvement for Williams as Tigers used the bench, but Sharks were still looking for the win that would take them into the Champions Cup and missed a good chance when they fired a penalty into the right-hand corner but then threw in not straight with less than 10 minutes still to play.
Tiger had advantage at the resulting scrum but played out from their own line, with Holmes winning the chase to his own chip ahead and then Ford pushing play into the corner as the hosts were forced to play from long distance.
Play stayed in the Sale 22 and, after Tigers had won possession and then recycled smartly through a series of phases, Ford called for a deep pass and coolly landed a drop goal to push the advantage out to 17 points.
McGuigan’s breakdown work won a final penalty for Tigers and when play was spread across the backline, Holmes grabbed his second of the day to ensure the bonus-point win and send the visiting fans home in good voice.
There were even louder cheers when Mulipola called for the conversion from the right touchline, but he couldn’t add the extras.