Leicester Tigers were beaten 26-10 by Sale Sharks in Round 18 of the Gallagher Premiership season on Friday evening.
Victory for the home side was built on their first half when a try from Byron McGuigan and 11 points from fly-half AJ MacGinty provided a 16-point lead before Zack Henry put Tigers on the scoreboard with a penalty shortly before half-time.
Tigers, though, enjoyed more ball and territory in the second 40 minutes, claiming a penalty try and seeing two Sharks defenders sin-binned before a Marland Yarde try pushed Sale out of reach.
Victory at the AJ Bell Stadium allowed Sharks to leapfrog defending champions Exeter Chiefs into second place in the table overnight and stretch their winning run in the tournament to five games.
In the 100th meeting of the teams, Ben Youngs led the Tigers out on a bright spring evening in the North-West, with Johnny McPhillips, Dan Kelly and Zack Henry also recalled to the backline, Tomás Lavanini and Cyle Brink added to the forwards.
After Sharks got the game started, Henry was quickly called into action at full-back, wrapping up ball on the right touchline. Moments later, when he was penalised on the floor, the home side went to the right-hand corner but Cameron Henderson managed to rip ball in Tigers’ direction.
The early pattern was set with Tigers kicking clear to relieve pressure but then having to set in defence as Sale ran it back.
Johnny McPhillips was unlucky when he ripped possession from Tom Curry in front of his own posts, only for a colleague to be penalised at the breakdown and MacGinty put over the kick to give Sale the lead with seven minutes gone.
A penalty at the restart gave Sharks a chance to get forward again and, although Henry intercepted a popped pass in front of his own posts, Sale reclaimed possession and MacGinty had time to float a long pass out to the left for McGuigan to score. The conversion provided a 10-point lead on 13 minutes.
A penalty finally gave Tigers some territory and they almost made the most of it with Dan Kelly and Matias Moroni combining to find Kobus van Wyk on the right touchline. The wing, though, ran out of space as the Sharks defence took him into touch.
When Sharks hassled Tigers into an error 60 metres further upfield, another penalty gave MacGinty the chance to extend the lead and he quickly added another to make it 16-0 on 25 minutes.
Kini Murimurivalu was called into defensive action to win a penalty over the ball before Akker van der Merwe was whistled twice at the other end of the field and Henry kicked from the tee to put Tigers on the scoreboard just five minutes short of half-time.
The Tigers full-back was quickly back on the ball in defence, claiming the restart kick to allow McPhillips to boot clear, and Tigers also enjoyed some promising possession in attack with Liebenberg twice involved on the right and Murimurivalu carrying on the opposite flank.
But Sharks also reacted quickly to turnover ball and the half ended with Van Wyk racing across from the right wing to win a race for ball behind his own tryline with Sharks still 16-3 in front.
The second period started with Curry putting McGuigan free on the right wing but Kelly chased him down and then Tigers reacted to win turnover ball. But an offside decision cost another three points as MacGinty knocked over his fourth penalty.
Carries from Kelly and Martin gave Tigers some go-forward and then Youngs combined with Liebenberg before Sharks were penalised in sight of their own line.
The clock had passed 47 minutes as Tigers opted for a scrum – the first of the evening – and after playing three separate advantages from the set-piece, Kelly found Murimurivalu on the left touchline and the Fijian thought he’d made his way to the line only to be denied what would have been an impressive score as TMO and referee determined a double movement.
But Tigers stayed within range of the line, pressuring Sharks until flanker Jean-Luc du Preez was yellow-carded in defence. Jasper Wiese came off the bench to carry at the next set-piece as play continued within five metres of the tryline and continued to build penalty advantage.
This time, when Henry prodded a kick looking for Murimurivalu on the left, Luke James was adjudged to have deliberately knocked-on in front of him and referee Foley awarded a penalty try and sin-binned the Sharks full-back with the score at 19-10.
Sharks, even with 13 men, looked to attack the Tigers line from the restart with Yarde almost finding as way through, but when they came back towards the posts, Wiese made a telling tackle and Lavanini won a priceless penalty over the ball.
Wiese showed his power as ball-carrier before fellow replacement Freddie Steward made a 50-metre break up the middle of the field. After involving Moroni and Lavanini near halfway, Murimurivalu kicked ahead and Henry arrived to take down MacGinty as he mopped up less than 10 metres from his own line.
Jack Van Poortvliet joined the action and Lavanini carried again before Liebenberg found space wide on the left, only for the No8 to unluckily lose his footing with the Sharks defence scrambling back.
Tigers, though, had to also dig in back in defence until a handling error finally brought a stoppage.
Van Poortvliet then won a chase back to field MacGinty’s kick into the corner, but Sharks remained on the attack and Tom Curry carried towards the line before quick ball found Yarde in space to reach out and score in the left-hand corner.
The touchline conversion from MacGinty pushed the score out to 26-10 with 10 minutes left to play.
It had been a frantic period of play for both teams and there was no let-up in tempo as Tigers pushed for another score, using a maul on the right to provide ball for Kelly and Steward to run on the left.
A penalty, though, kept play at that end with Tigers keeping ball through numerous phases before seeing ball squirt untidily out of a ruck as the Sale defence soaked up the pressure.
Will Hurd and Nic Dolly both came off the bench for their Premiership debuts, while David Williams made a seasonal debut on the wing in the closing stages, and it was his break which provided a final chance as Kelly managed to find a gap in midfield, only to be chased down midway into the Sharks half.