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Exeter Chiefs 20 Sale Sharks 19
What a stunning comeback. A second-half red card for Sam Skinner should have left Exeter in a perilous position, down 19-3 against a rampant Sale side chasing a bonus-point win to secure second place and a home Gallagher Premiership semi-final.
Instead Skinner’s sending off woke up last season’s champions from their slumber, with Exeter scoring 17 unanswered points through tries from Luke Cowan-Dickie and Stu Townsend to ensure that Sale will have to return to Devon next Saturday, when these two meet again in the final four.
AJ MacGinty, Sale’s outstanding fly-half, may not return with them. Having scored himself and created Sale’s other two tries as they stormed into a 19-3 lead, he was carried off in the final minute, warmly applauded by both sets of fans. What a cruel twist that injury is, capping off an afternoon where Sale were astonishing for over 50 minutes and then dramatically went flat.
“We are going to use it as motivation,” said Sale director of rugby Alex Sanderson. “We had the better of that for 50 minutes. That is a game we should have won. Our set-piece was not good enough in terms of execution and discipline. We wanted to come here and prove a point and did for 50 minutes.”
Rob Baxter, Exeter’s director of rugby, will be hoping next week’s semi-final does not require quite such a drastic recovery.
“Weirdly, we were a team transformed by a red card. It just shows you when we have nowhere to go and have to stand and fight we’re a bloody good side, aren’t we? To do that to Sale with 14 is pretty impressive,” Baxter said.
“I’m hoping the phoney war is over. This is it. If we don’t want to stand up and fight from minute one next week [in the semi-final] the season is gone. I genuinely think that will change us.”
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Sale could not have asked for a better start, finding space out wide with ease, Byron McGuigan scoring thanks to MacGinty’s looping pass inside two minutes. Joe Simmonds’ subsequent penalty gave Exeter their first points.
Sale’s physical abrasiveness in the opening exchanges came at a cost, losing both Cameron Neild and Akker van der Merwe to injury. Sat in the stands with ice strapped around his ankle, Sale will need Van der Merwe in particular available for their title charge.
For all Sale’s heft and power upfront it was a moment of subtlety from MacGinty which extended their lead. After drawing Exeter’s attention with a driving maul, Sale looked wide, with MacGinty dummying, ducking under a tackle and going enough to score.
Sale, halfway to their try bonus point target after just over 20 minutes played, were in a promising position – aside from the scrum where Exeter kept churning out penalties to set up a lineout in the corner. The script felt familiar, poised for one of those classic Exeter tries from short range, until Tom Curry popped up with one of his customary turnovers.
Exeter then lost Dave Ewers to a yellow card but it could have been red, the punishment reduced after a lengthy deliberation between referee Karl Dickson and his assistants, deeming that Ewers’ contact to the head of Simon Hammersley with his shoulder could be mitigated by the fact that Hammersley was spinning out of another tackle.
Exeter went into half-time having barely fired a shot. Sale, despite those injuries and leaking scrum penalties, were firmly in control of proceedings.
They had Exeter by the scruff of the neck, scoring try number three shortly after half-time when Arron Reed strolled over, running onto another magical bit of skill from MacGinty as he poked a grubber kick through behind Exeter’s defence into acres of green grass.
There was a ferocity about Sale in defence and at the breakdown that even the most stunned Exeter supporter would have appreciated. Tom O’Flaherty, trying to step out of Exeter’s 22 after fielding a kick, was smothered by Tom Curry for yet another turnover.
Sale were already sniffing the bonus-point try when Skinner saw red, sent off for a dangerous tackle after making contact to the head of Faf de Klerk.
It was going to take a Herculean effort by Exeter to hold Sale to just three tries. Cowan-Dickie’s score certainly helped, typically powerful close to the try line, as Sale just began to wobble a little. Then wobble a lot.
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Successive penalties from the scrum and maul had Exeter pinning Sale into the corner – Sam Simmonds revving up the crowd, Sale’s Ben Curry yellow carded – before Townsend sniped over. Exeter had cut the deficit from 16 points to just two.
Then Exeter completed the comeback – Sale diving off their feet at the ruck, Joe Simmonds, the Exeter captain, knocking over the resulting penalty to a rapturous reception.
A try for Sale would still have secured the win, but they were a shadow of the side who dominated building up to the red card. How much will that weigh on the minds ahead of their return to Devon next week.
Scoring sequence: 0-5 McGuigan try, 0-7 MacGinty con, 3-7 J Simmonds pen, 3-12 MacGinty try, 3-14 MacGinty con, 3-19 Reed try, 8-19 Cowan-Dickie try, 10-19 J Simmonds con, 15-19 Townsend try, 17-19 J Simmonds con, 20-19 J Simmonds pen.
Exeter Chiefs: S Hogg (rep S Lonsdale 60); A Cuthbert, H Slade, O Devoto, T O'Flaherty; J Simmonds (c), J Maunder (rep S Townsend 47); A Hepburn (rep B Moon 47), L Cowan-Dickie (rep J Yeandle 62), H Williams (rep M Street 62), S Skinner, J Hill, D Ewers, J Kirsten (rep R Capstick 28), S Simmonds.
Replacements not used: H Skinner, I Whitten.
Yellow card: D Ewers (34).
Red card: S Skinner (54).
Sale Sharks: S Hammersley; B McGuigan, S James, M Tuilagi (rep R du Preez 57), A Reed; A MacGinty (rep S Hill 79), F de Klerk (rep W Cliff 74); R Harrison (rep B Rodd 47), A van der Merwe (rep C Langdon 12), C Oosthuizen (rep W John 47), C Wiese (rep J Phillips 58), JL du Preez, C Neild (rep B Curry 7), T Curry, D du Preez.
Yellow card: B Curry (65).
Referee: K Dickson.
Sale's hopes of making Premiership final hit by injuries to key men
By Ben Coles
Sale do not expect to have any of AJ MacGinty, Akker van der Merwe and Cameron Neild available when they return to Exeter on Saturday for the Premiership semi-final.
MacGinty was carried off in the final minute with a leg injury after an outstanding display for Sale, scoring himself and creating his team’s two other tries by Byron McGuigan and Arron Reed.
MacGinty underwent a scan on Sunday to determine the extent of his injury, with Sale not expecting MacGinty to play for them again this season. Whether the American fly-half will be able to return for their Test match against England at Twickenham on June 4 is unknown.
Van der Merwe was helped off after just 12 minutes and was spotted with an ice pack on his ankle in the stands. Neild was brought off only seven minutes into the contest.
“I’m gutted with the outcome of the game, but more so for the three absolute legends of human beings, not just players,” said Sale director of rugby Alex Sanderson. “That’s three front-liners who we have probably lost today for the semi-finals.”
When Exeter lock Sam Skinner was shown a red card after 54 minutes, for a dangerous tackle to the head of Faf de Klerk, you would have put your house on Sale playing this week’s semi-final at home. They were 19-3 up and needed one more try for a bonus-point win to secure second place ahead of Exeter.
Instead, it was Exeter who went for the jugular, with tries from Luke Cowan-Dickie and Stu Townsend followed up with a Joe Simmonds penalty to turn a 3-19 deficit into a 20-19 victory.
“The set-piece disappeared. It gave them territory, led to the pick-and-gos which got them back into the game,” Sanderson conceded.
Based on precedents this season for similar red cards Skinner could be facing a three-match ban, ending his season early. Exeter flanker Jannes Kirsten came off with a concussion but was “talking and remembered everything in the changing room”, according to Exeter director of rugby Rob Baxter. Scotland lock Jonny Gray is “touch and go” for the semi-final, while England’s Jack Nowell is back in full training.
“I genuinely think that will change us,” Baxter said regarding Exeter’s comeback. “It will give us that direction and purpose. Once we get those, we’re a very good team. To do that to Sale with 14 men, given the position they were in, was pretty impressive.”