Premiership: Sale Sharks produce stirring comeback to stun leaders Saracens in top of the table clash
Second placed Sale Sharks came from 16-0 behind to overcome Premiership leaders Saracens 35-24 in a thrilling encounter at the AJ Bell Stadium.
Despite both sides being without key players due to the game taking place during the Six Nations, it still lived up to its billing.
Sarries were much the better team early on, going 16-0 ahead thanks to Alex Lewington and Theo Dan tries, while Alex Goode kicked two penalties.
However, Goode was sin-binned for a needless challenge and the Sharks clicked into gear. They reduced the arrears to 19-14 at the interval as Joe Carpenter and Sam James went over before the hosts dominated the second period.
Carpenter completed his brace and Jono Ross touched down to move them 28-19 in front and, although Kapeli Pifeleti gave the visitors hope, Jean-Luc du Preez completed an impressive Premiership win late on.
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Saracens were quicker out of the traps and were rewarded with an early lead when Goode kicked a straightforward penalty.
The visitors continued to look the sharper side in the opening exchanges with both wingers, Sean Maitland and Lewington, troubling the defence with their elusive running.
However the try-line was hardly threatened and it came as no surprise that the next score was another penalty from Goode.
After 20 minutes, Saracens scored an excellent try. The ever-alert Goode was the instigator with a couple of a long passes which culminated in Maitland racing away to provide Lewington with an easy run-in.
In that opening quarter, despite playing in front of the largest crowd this season, a strangely subdued Sale had not fired a worthwhile shot and their woes continued when Dan finished off an unstoppable line-out drive for Saracens’ second try.
Sale needed a boost and they got one when Goode was yellow-carded for impeding Tom O’Flaherty with the hosts immediately capitalising.
They secured possession from a close-range line-out and moved the ball wide to create a try for Carpenter but Saracens soon responded with a penalty from Vunipola.
Goode was still absent when Sale scored their second try. O’Flaherty raced through the defence to send out the scoring pass to James and, although it looked suspiciously forward, the try was given. A second conversion from Rob du Preez left the home side trailing 19-14 at the interval.
Two minutes after the restart, Goode returned in time to see Sale nearly score again when a superb run from O’Flaherty was just thwarted by a last-gasp tackle from Alex Lozowski.
Sale were now a totally different animal from their lacklustre opening and after 54 minutes, Carpenter tore through the visitors’ defence for his second try with the conversion giving them the lead for the first time.
It was now one-way traffic with the hosts scoring their bonus-point try when Ross crashed over.
Sale looked in control but their opponents restored some of their momentum with a third try when replacement Pifeleti finished off a driving line-out.
The game lay in the balance but, even though prop Hislop was sent off for a head-high challenge on the impressive Carpenter with 11 minutes remaining, Saracens still finished the stronger and it took some heroic defence from Sale to keep them out.
In the final minute, Sale broke out for Jean-Luc du Preez to score their fifth and deprive Saracens of a deserved losing bonus-point.
London Irish up to fifth with win at Newcastle
London Irish made it back-to-back away league wins for the first time in three years as they beat Newcastle Falcons 34-19 in an entertaining Premiership clash at Kingston Park.
The away side were dominant for the first 30 minutes – Josh Basham, Tom Pearson and Danilo Fischetti scoring a trio of tries.
Matthew Dalton and Jamie Blamire scored before the break – the latter following a lengthy TMO review – to limit the first-half damage for the home side, before Carl Fearns levelled the scores within 10 minutes of the restart.
But Matt Cornish and Ollie Hassell-Collins went over to give the Exiles a bonus point, and Paddy Jackson kicked a late penalty to put the seal on a convincing victory.
The hosts were looking to bounce back from a losing effort against Saracens last time out, where they came from 16 points down at the break to salvage a bonus point.
But the signs did not look good early on, as Basham drove through the defence to touch down inside the first three minutes.
Pearson added a second on 17 minutes after a pick-and-go close to the posts, to establish a commanding early lead.
The visitors were in complete control – Fischetti found a way through a tight situation in the left corner for their third try on 27 minutes, but Jackson failed to land the conversion for the first time in the game.
And Dalton replied for the hosts with their first big chance of the game three minutes later to reduce the arrears to 19-7.
The Falcons looked revitalised, and Blamire scored following a quick-tap penalty five metres out – Brett Connon as reliable as ever in applying the extras – to make it 19-14 going into the interval.
Fearns levelled the scores nine minutes into the second half after a maul in the left corner, but Connon – like Jackson before him – failed to convert from the left touchline.
The see-saw battle continued with Cornish driving over, giving Jackson a simple kick to restore the visitors’ seven-point lead.
And Hassell-Collins capped off a flowing move from right to left to extend the lead to 31-19 – Jackson again finding the angle too difficult to convert.
The lead could have been extended when Jackson intercepted a pass to go clean through, but the move broke down on the line when Ben White knocked the ball forward when looking to dot down.
Jackson did convert a penalty two minutes from time to put extra gloss on the scoreline and no further scoring meant the visitors earned their fourth win in a row over the Falcons, who fell to their third consecutive loss and their first home defeat since December 17.
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