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.
Thank you for your support
Thank you to everyone in the Tigers Family for your support, at home, away and across Europe. We hope you have a cracking summer and we will do it all again in September!
We're all going on a European tour!
The bonus-point win has secured qualification for next season's Champions Cup. Tigers maintain their proud record of playing in every season of English representation in the competition.
Logo to convert
Mulipola trots over to the far touchline to take the conversion with his final action in a Tigers shirt. He checks the wind direction. And scuffs his kick short and wide!
That's the bonus point try!
... and there it is. Holmes with his second to finish off a patient passage of play and a brilliant second half. The bonus point guarantees European Champions Cup rugby next season.
Time is up, Tigers have a 5m lineout and one last chance for a try ...
Tigers in control
We're into the final moments of the season and Tigers are in total control. They have Sale at arm's length in their half and, now have the penalty as McGuigan wins the turnover.
Another scrum penalty
Play restarts with a penalty, and again Tigers win the penalty. It must be approaching double figures.
Further Tigers replacements
Joe Ford and Harry Wells are on the for the final moments, replacing May and Fitzgerald.
Is that the game?
Tigers are hammering away at the Sale defence without making much headway. Ford shows his experience and composure by landing a drop goal to move them more than two scores ahead.
Fantastic from Ford
Ford has moved Tigers around the pitch brilliantly this half, and is right on the money with a kick to the corner that will force Sale to attack from their 5m line.
Another Leicester replacement
Mat Tait is off for Tigers, replaced by George Worth.
Tino Mapapalangi, Sam Harrison and Greg Bateman are all on for Tigers. Williams, Youngs and Genge have gone off.
More on the try
The try began with yet another turnover for O'Connor. Ford darted down the short side, Genge took it on before Ford's inside ball put May through and he found Williams to dive over. Ford converts.
Tigers are over for a third try. And it's a first for Tigers for big Mike Williams. Get in!
Logo on for landmark appearance
Logovi'i Mulipola is on for his 100th Premiership appearance in his final game for Tigers. Another replacement, George McGuigan, is off target with his first lineout throw.
Tigers soak up huge Sale pressure, keeping the Sharks at bay 35m out. And then O'Connor swoops to win another turnover penalty. Top work by the openside.
Kitchener sets up the drive, Genge peels away, but he is isolated and his teammates can't support. Instead, the Sharks win the penalty to take play to their 10m line.
Penalty to Tigers
Ross collapses the Tigers maul and it's a penalty to Tigers. Ford goes to the corner again ...
O'Connor settles things down
Good work by O'Connor wins the penalty on halfway as Josh Beaumont stops him winning the ball on the floor. Ford pumps Tigers into the Sale 22.
The try is converted by MacGinty, and the Tigers lead is cut to seven points. The home fans at the AJ Bell have suddenly found their voice.
Tigers hit with a sucker punch
Veainu makes a trademark 50m break from his 22, but his offload for Kalamafoni ends in Tom Curry's possession. Holmes gets back to stop the back-rower, but he gets the ball away for Yarde to score.
Ford extends the lead further
Ford lands his second penalty of the half to move Tigers 20-6 ahead. This has been a very good start to the second half for the visitors. Can they keep it going?
Ford at the heart of things for Tigers
Tigers are really taking the game to Sale at the start of this half. And Ford is pulling the strings. Williams busts the tackle before Ben Curry fails to roll. Ford points to the posts and lands his kick. That's 10 points in eight minutes for Ford.
Holmes is hot right now
Holmes climbs above two defenders to claim Youngs's up-and-under on the right. Kalamafoni and Kitchener maintain the momentum but the play ends with a knock-on as Ford tries to claim Youngs's grubber.
Brilliant stuff from Tigers
Ford converts his own try to give Tigers an eight-point lead. And he is at the heart of things again when Youngs and May cut through again, but his pass to Holmes finds touch rather than the Tigers man.
What a try!
A cracking start to the second half as Ben Youngs and George Ford combine to carve Sale open for the second try. Youngs snipes through a gap and has Ford on his outside to race over for his first of the season.
Ford gets us going
Ford restarts the game, with Tigers attacking from right to left in the second half.
The teams are back
Here we go, the final 40 minutes of the season and European Champions Cup qualification to play for. Come on you Tigers!
Tigers on tour!
Fantastic support from the Tigers Family, enjoying the sun, the hospitality and the rugby at the AJ Bell Stadium.
As it stands ...
By our reckoning, with Tigers winning here against Sale, Gloucester trailing 22-12 at Saracens and Bath leading London Irish 35-0, Tigers and Bath will qualify for the Champions Cup via the Premiership. Gloucester will qualify via the Challenge Cup.
Tigers have played well in patches in the first-half, notably when Ford, Veainu and May combined to send Holmes over for the only try, but they have been hurt by their own mistakes. All to play for in the second 40.
Deja vu all over again
Ford has a penalty kick at goal to end the half. And from almost the same spot as his last kick, the fly-half strikes the other post. Again it falls to de Klerk and he finds touch.
Holmes the try-saver
Mike Haley scythes through up to the Tigers 22 and has De Klerk in support. Holmes reads the pass and makes the interception to prevent an almost-certain try. Holmes completes his work by driving up towards halfway. Great work Jonah.
Stanko on the prowl
Boris Stankovich enjoyed that scrum, as Tigers win a penalty in their 22, a third scrum penalty in a row.
Too many mistakes
Tigers make a series of mistakes and Sale take play into their 22. O'Connor fails to collect ball off the top of the lineout, Tuilagi then knocks on before May is pinged. Tait is then penalised for not retreating 10. Not a good period for the visitors, but they do force the knock-on to earn a scrum 15m from their own line.
Genge is away down the right flank, but play is pulled back for Veainu's forward pass. It's a shame. Who doesn't like to see a prop in full flow?
Ford's penalty from 40m strikes the left-hand post and falls into Faf de Klerk's hands.
The Tigers pack get the shove on the Sale eight and win the penalty. Ford points to the posts ...
Tag team Tigers
Sam James makes a break from his own 22, and it takes a two-man tackle by Veainu and Genge to halt him on the Tigers 10m line.
One-point in it
MacGinty lands the penalty, his second of the contest, and Tigers' lead is cut to 7-6.
Mike Williams dives on the ball, but it was still in the ruck rules referee Wayne Barnes. The ref has a word with Jono Ross, who waves an imaginery card at him, and threatens to reverse the penalty. Sale will go for goal.
Tigers defend the lineout well, and Ford spots the break away. But Sale still have possession on the Leicester line ...
Penalties hurting Tigers
A scrum penalty, and then Mike Fitzgerald is pinged for not coming through the gate, and Sale have a lineout on the Tigers 5m line ...
Tigers look dangerous with ball in hand but have been let down on a couple of occasions by handling errors. This time Brendon O'Connor gets the other side of his tackler but loses the ball as he tries to free his arms.
Kitchener snipes at a ruck and has Ben Youngs in support. He juggles the ball, before slapping it back to Sione Kalamafoni, but Tigers do lose it forward as he goes into contact.
Sale on the board
Tigers drive Sale back towards halfway, but they are ruled offside. MacGinty kicks a 40m penalty from in front to give the hosts their first points.
More on the try
Ford opened up the play with a delayed pass 30m out, the ball went through Telusa Veainu and Jonny may, who fed Holmes inside to score his ninth try of the season.
Ford lands his kick from wide on the left, and Tigers lead by seven. Just the start they wanted.
Lovely interplay from the Tigers backs sends Jonah Holmes over for the opening try of the game. Great stuff boys!
Huge Tuilagi tackles
Tuilagi has announced himself in this game with two huge tackles, including one on the giant Sale lock Andrei Ostrikov.
Standing ovation for Addison
Will Addison on his final appearance for Sale, is given a standing ovation as he comes off with an injury. He is replaced Luke James.
Tigers win the first penalty of the game as they secure their own lineout ball in their 22 and Sharks infringe. Ford kicks play up towards halfway.
Sale show their intentions of looking for a fast-paced game by securing quick ball at a series of rucks before Marland Yarde is bundled into touch by Jonah Holmes, George Ford and Graham Kitchener.
Half chance for Tigers
Ford dummied and found Polota-Nau, he had Ellis Genge outside but the pass was forward.
Lovely handling from Graham Kitchener, Manu Tuilagi and Dan Cole take Tigers into the Sale 22, but Tatafu Polota-Nau can't gather the ball in the face of quick Sharks defence and the position goes away.
Sale fly-half AJ MacGinty gets us going.
Here come the hosts
Sale are also out for this European qualification shoot-out. They will get us going in beautiful sunshine in the North West.
Tigers are out
Led out by captain George Ford, Tigers take to the field in their all-white away kit. Tigers are kicking from left to right in the first half.
We're five minutes from kick-off at the AJ Bell Stadium as the two teams head off for their final preparations.
It's a big afternoon for our big Samoan prop Logovi’i Mulipola, who will make his 100th Premiership Rugby appearance in his final game for the club. Go well Logo!
Fantastic Tigers Family support
Shirt-sleeve order behind the posts for Tigers fans this afternoon as they bake in the glorious May sunshine.
Get out the abacus!
If Tigers fail to claim a match point and Sale win with four tries, then it gets complicated. Sale will qualify. But it would also need Gloucester to take three match points from their game against Saracens at Allianz Park to deny Tigers Champions Cup rugby next season. Clear? Good!
We'll keep it simple in terms of European Champions Cup qualification. Tigers need one match point from this afternoon's game to guarantee being at Europe's top table next season
Team sheets are in
Here are your teams for this afternoon's clash.
The sun is out in Manchester!
The pitch is drenched in glorious sunshine as the Tigers players begin to go through their warm-up. It is currently 21C and there is barely a cloud in the sky.
Welcome to the AJ Bell Stadium
Welcome to the North West for Leicester Tigers' final fixture of the Aviva Premiership season against Sale Sharks.