They often say the sign of a good side is one that can perform poorly and still win. Exeter Chiefs produced a strangely faltering, off-colour display but managed a bonus-point victory to keep them in the hunt for a home Premiership semi-final and extend their unbeaten run in the league to 11 matches.
Criticism of Exeter, though, should take nothing away from Sale’s impressive, hard-working showing, with American international A J MacGinty controlling matters well at fly-half, and the Sharks thoroughly deserved their losing bonus point.
Rob Baxter, the Chiefs head coach, said: “Full credit to Sale, who really challenged us, but I can’t be happy with our level of performance. We showed some good mental qualities to come from behind and get a five-point win, and it has kept us second in the Premiership, which is massively important. But we are going to have to shake ourselves up a little bit.
“We looked like a team who wanted an easy score to come, and that wasn’t going to happen today against a decent Premiership side, and I just don’t think we showed Sale the respect they deserved, and that really bothered me.”
Sale director of rugby Steve Diamond said: “The game was dominated by the wind and the advantage of that. I am a bit disappointed with the result, but we had a blip against Northampton three weeks ago, when we didn’t turn up, and I expected a performance today and we delivered. We could have won, but we are very happy with a bonus point.
“We stopped Exeter playing quite a lot of rugby in a positive way, and our line-out defence was good and they had to think outside the box.”
Sale had the very strong wind behind their backs in the first half, and MacGinty made full use of it with some excellent goalkicking, with the Chiefs uncharacteristically giving away three scrum penalties.
Two early MacGinty kicks put Sale 6-0 in front, and they extended their advantage when Samoan winger Denny Solomona intercepted a pass and ran 75 metres to score his ninth Premiership try of the season, with MacGinty adding the extras.
Exeter responded with a good break by hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie, in front of watching England forwards coach Steve Borthwick, which created a try in the corner for evergreen back rower Kai Horstmann.
Two more MacGinty penalties gave Sale a 19-5 lead, but the Chiefs crucially struck just before the break, with Cowan-Dickie finishing off a catch-and-drive, and with Slade converting, Exeter only trailed by seven points after a torrid opening 40 minutes.
An Olly Woodburn try and a Slade penalty got the Chiefs in front for the first time at 20-19, but MacGinty swiftly replied with a penalty to give the Sharks the edge once again.
Nerves started to grow among the home fans, until the 67th minute, when captain Don Armand managed to find a hole in the Sale defence to score under the posts.
Slade converted, and his penalty four minutes from time sealed victory, but a three-pointer by MacGinty with the last kick of the game, which gave him a seven-from-seven record, earned the Sharks some consolation for their efforts.
Scores 0-3 MacGinty pen; 0-6 MacGinty pen; 0-11 Solomona try; 0-13 MacGinty con; 5-13 Horstmann try; 5-16 MacGinty pen (30 mins), 5-19 MacGinty pen (34 mins), 10-19 Cowan-Dickie try, 12-19 Slade con (39 mins), 17-19 Woodburn try (46 mins), 20-19 Slade pen (51 mins), 20-22 MacGinty pen (54 mins), 25-22 Armand try (67 mins), 27-22 Slade con (67 mins), 30-22 Slade pen (76 mins), 30-25 MacGinty pen (80+1mins).
Exeter Chiefs: P Dollman, J Nowell (J Short 78), I Whitten, O Devoto, O Woodburn, H Slade, S Townsend (J Maunder 54), B Moon (C Rimmer 59), L Cowan-Dickie (J Yeandle 59), H Williams (T Francis 59), M Lees, G Parling (J Hill 63), K Horstmann (S Simmonds 67), D Armand (capt), T Waldrom.
Sale Sharks: M Haley, D Solomona, S James, M Jennings (S Bedlow 58), B McGuigan (J Charnley 74), AJ MacGinty, M Phillips (J Mitchell 69), R Harrison (J Flynn 70), R Webber, H Aulika (K Longbottom 63), B Evans (G Nott 69), A Ostrikov (L Pearce 63), C Neild, T Curry (B Curry 58), J Beaumont
Referee C Maxwell-Keys (RFU).