Sale claim historic first title
May 27, 2007
Sale celebrate with the Premiership trophy
© Getty Images
Sale Sharks 45 - 20 Leicester Tigers
Sale Sharks emphatically landed their first league title - and made Guinness Premiership history in the process - by sinking Leicester at a rain-swept Twickenham.
Sharks became the first club since play-offs were introduced three seasons ago to secure silverware after finishing top following a 22-game regular season.
Whereas Wasps clinched a hat-trick of crowns without reaching the summit until they arrived at Twickenham, Sale left no-one in doubt about their status as England´s premier team.
First-half tries from wings Mark Cueto and Oriol Ripol, plus flanker Magnus Lund´s touchdown - all three scores were referred to the video referee - left Leicester licking their wounds.
Tigers´ England flanker Lewis Moody claimed an opportunist score and substitute James Hamilton powered over six minutes from time, but the Sharks eased home through a 23-point contribution from fly-half Charlie Hodgson and substitute Chris Mayor´s injury-time breakaway.
England ace Hodgson booted six penalties, a drop-goal and conversion, giving once unfashionable Sale Guinness Premiership title glory and extending Leicester´s barren sequence.
The Tigers have now gone four seasons without a major trophy - they secured a league and Heineken Cup double in 2002 - and for a club of their calibre, it represents a miserable return.
It was their second successive play-off final defeat, yet Sale could not care less as they became only the fifth different team to become champions of England since leagues were introduced almost 20 years ago, after Wasps, Bath, Leicester and Newcastle.
Gloucester, Bath and Leicester all topped the league between 2003 and 2005 without being crowned champions, but Sale were in no mood to follow suit, rewarding their millionaire owner Brian Kennedy´s faith in the club by delivering when he really needed it most.
Sale skipper Jason Robinson - the former rugby league star - became the first player to win Grand Finals in both rugby codes, but the mercurial Hodgson apart, Sale´s star man was unsung scrum-half Richard Wigglesworth, who outplayed England number nine Harry Ellis and repeatedly threatened Leicester´s defence.
Leicester ultimately had no answers when Sale asked serious questions, and the Premiership trophy will be now be shown off to the Sharks faithful at Edgeley Park in Stockport tomorrow.
It was Sharks rugby director Philippe Saint-Andre´s first Twickenham triumph as a player or coach - he won more than 60 caps for France - and Sale supporters shed plenty of tears when Robinson held aloft the gleaming silver prize.
Leicester were unchanged from the side that crushed Premiership semi-final opponents London Irish a fortnight ago, but Sale made one enforced switch as Wigglesworth took over from calf muscle injury victim Sililo Martens.
England head coach Andy Robinson was an interested Twickenham observer, given that 11 of his 30-man Australia tour squad were in action just 48 hours before departing Down Under.
Persistent drizzle made for a tricky playing surface, but Sale adapted far more impressively than their opponents, and Hodgson´s opening penalty strike was just reward for concerted pressure.
Moody suffered an injury during the build-up to Hodgson´s strike, taking a blow to the head when he attempted a tackle, but things quickly deteriorated for Leicester when Sale stung them through an opportunist try.
Hodgson´s well-placed cross-kick drifted over the head of Leicester full-back Geordan Murphy, and Cueto reacted to a kind ricochet by touching down in the corner.
It was a dream start for Sale, yet Leicester slashed their arrears within two minutes of Cueto´s strike.
Hodgson saw an attempted defensive clearance charged down by Tigers flanker Shane Jennings, and before Sale could respond, Tigers centre Ollie Smith hacked on before Moody - after confirmation from video official Geoff Warren - touched down.
Andy Goode´s effortless touchline conversion brought Leicester back to 8-7, yet Sale displayed true title credentials by striking another blow as a breathless opening quarter reached its conclusion.
Undeterred by Moody´s try, Sale launched a menacing break through scrum-half Richard Wigglesworth, and when Goode fumbled badly in defence, Lund reacted superbly to kick clear and win the touchdown race, which was confirmed when referee Dave Pearson - for a third time in succession - sought video replay clarification.
Hodgson pushed his conversion attempt narrowly wide, but Sale continued to establish threatening field position on a slippery surface, and were good value for their six-point advantage.
Hodgson landed his second successful penalty 10 minutes before the break, only for Goode to find his range from 45 metres and keep an intriguing final firmly in the melting pot.
Sale looked far more dangerous with ball in hand, yet Leicester´s naturally attritional approach meant the Sharks could hardly relax until a moment of Hodgson magic left Tigers´ defence at sixes and sevens.
The timing of the England star´s break bewildered Leicester, and as a huge gap opened up in front of him, he sent Ripol scampering over for an outstanding try.
Hodgson converted for good measure, sending Sale in at half-time 23-10 ahead and on course to be crowned English champions.
Sale were in no mood to relax, and two further Hodgson penalties after a Goode three-pointer hoisted them 29-13 ahead before another Hodgson penalty, a short-range drop-goal and Mayor´s last-gasp effort, converted by replacement Valentin Courrent, condemned Leicester to a miserably fruitless afternoon.