A late penalty try gave Sale Sharks an 18-16 victory over Leicester Tigers at Welford Road in the third round of the Premiership Rugby Cup on Friday evening.
It meant a third successive defeat in the knockout competition for the Tigers before the return to Gallagher Premiership action next weekend.
Sale took an early eight-point lead with a penalty from debutant Rob Du Preez and a try from hooker Rob Webber, but Tom Hardwick kept Tigers within striking range with a couple of penalties.
A try from Guy Thompson finally levelled the scores, with Hardwick kicking the touchline conversion to put Tigers in front at 13-11 on the stroke of half-time.
Hardwick extended the lead with another penalty as Welford Road was caught in torrential rain throughout, but Sharks dominated territory in the second half and finally got their rewards with a penalty try from a lineout drive with just three minutes remaining.
There was still one more opportunity to snatch a home victory, but Hardwick was wide of the target with his final kick.
Tigers welcomed Mike Fitzgerald back into the squad for the first time since the opening day of the season following surgery on a knee injury and gave a first start to Gaston Cortes in the front row.
Wearing a shirt featuring the centenary ‘Thank You’ poppy logo, Tigers received the kick-off following the playing of The Last Post and two-minute silence, and managed their exit from the 22 as heavy rain fell on Welford Road.
An early lineout steal by Mike Williams in front of the dugout gave Tigers set-piece ball and the big blindside then secured ball on his own throw to set up a solid drive, but Hardwick’s kick was too long and Sale were given an opportunity to clear.
Penalised at the next breakdown near halfway, Sharks were pushed back again but fierce defence on the gainline gave Tigers no chance to build on that territory.
Sharks, though, built on two penalties down their left, the second for a no-arms tackle by Kyle Eastmond, and play was brought back after George Worth had covered a kick through into the corner. The visitors elected for the kick and Du Preez gave them a three-point lead with 10 minutes gone on the clock.
Gareth Owen was penalised as he tried to win turnover ball on the edge of the Tigers 22, and Sharks went to the corner to set up a drive. They eventually managed to get play into the right-hand corner but were held up over the tryline.
The referee, though was already playing an advantage and brought play back for another penalty on their left flank and they made it count with an opening try.
It was hooker Rob Webber who made the decisive for the line to make it 8-0 to the visitors, though Du Preez was off-target with the conversion attempt from the touchline.
Tigers had spent too long in their own defensive zone, but finally got forward with a teasing kick from Ben White and set-piece ball on the right which found the Sharks backline offside and allowed Tom Hardwick to kick his opening points of the evening on 21 minutes.
Immediately from the restart, Tigers were penalised as they spilled ball just 25 metres from their own line and Du Preez made it 3-11 with the kick.
Hardwick had another sight of the posts on 25 minutes after Ben Curry was whistled for hands in a ruck and he struck it straight and true to cut the gap to five points.
The Tigers forwards were getting frustrated with the Sharks at the breakdown, and skipper Tom Youngs made his feelings known to referee Simon Harding, but the next penalty went to Sharks for offside and Tigers were marched back for a show of dissent. The extra 10 metres took it well within range for Du Preez but he was off-target and the score remained 6-11.
Worth’s superb catch of a high ball should have brought better reward but Sharks won back possession near halfway before being penalised as ball fell loose in the soaking conditions.
Referee Harding spoke to Youngs about Tigers discipline when the skipper was penalised near the touchline, but Tigers got through some hard work in defence to eventually force spilled ball. With advantage over, though, they kicked long and play was brought back up to their own 22 again before Tigers managed to win set-piece ball and clear.
Tigers produced a massive scrum to push Sharks off their own ball on their 22 and they stayed close to the line, using the forwards to carry until Thompson ran in on the right to level the scores as the clock hit 40 minutes. Hardwick’s superb kick from the touchline made it 13-11 at the break.
Mike Fitzgerald replaced Mike Williams at half-time, with Tigers kicking off towards the Mattioli Woods Stand end, but the opening phases of the game were littered with errors and spills as the rain made handling ever more difficult.
Youngs made way for Jake Kerr on 48 minutes, with Ben White taking over as captain, while Sharks replaced Du Preez with teenager Kieran Wilkinson.
A sense of adventure from Jordan Olowofela, chasing his own chip over the Sharks defence near halfway, brought another penalty when Sale were pressured in their own half, and Hardwick landed the kick to stretch the lead to 16-11 on 55 minutes.
Another 10 minutes passed with neither side able to build any phases of possession or real territory advantage, though pressure on the scrum-half’s box-kicking meant Tigers were finding it difficult to fully clear their lines.
They were still pinned back when Sharks looked to build on a lineout drive but forced a spill as the visitors attacked the line.
But they remained under pressure, a bouncing ball pushing Thompson back to his own line before replacement Tommy Reffell earned some respite with a penalty award as he contested possession almost on his own tryline.
A shapeless encounter swung from set-piece to set-piece though Sharks had another opportunity when Olowofela was called for a deliberate knock-on as he rushed up in defence.
Sharks chipped towards the corner on their right having spent the bulk of the half in the Tigers 22 and had another penalty after a tackle by replacement prop Facundo Gigena. They stayed in the corner and Gigena was sin-binned as he brought down another lineout drive with less than four minutes remaining on the clock.
Sale made the most of the advantage, driving straight over from the next lineout as the referee signalled for a penalty try. Under new rulings, that meant they required no conversion but were 16-18 in front.
From the restart, Tigers won a prenalty 35 metres out but Hardwick lost his 100 per cent record as he failed to connect cleanly and the pushed it wide.
There was to be no further opportunity as the game ended in midfield, Sale showing their aggression in defence to force Tigers into one final error.