Sharks sail to Premiership title

By Rob Lancaster  

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Sale claimed the Guinness Premiership title for the first time in their history as they defeated Leicester 45-20 in a thrilling final at Twickenham.

The Sharks were left singing in the rain as they became the first team to win after finishing top at the end of the regular season.

For Leicester it meant a second consecutive final disappointment as, just like against Wasps in 2005, they were outplayed on the big occasion.

Charlie Hodgson was the Tigers' tormentor in chief, kicking 23 points and setting up two tries, including Ariol Ripol's crucial score on the stroke of half-time.

Despite difficult conditions, the two teams put on an excellent match to lift the gloom of a wet May day.

There wasn't even time for the players to feel their way into the big occasion as Sale burst out of the traps with a declaration of intent that caught their opponents cold.

Straight from the kick-off their forwards looked to take control as they quickly proved they would be more-than-a match for Leicester's powerful pack.

Hodgson's early penalty stunned the Tigers and the England number 10 then combined with his international colleague Mark Cueto to get the first try.

Geordan Murphy misjudged a high crossfield kick and Cueto, attempting to leap and catch the ball himself, accidentally knocked the ball forward with his foot to allow himself to cross in the right corner.

The slice of luck was no more than Sale deserved after such a sensational start, although their joy was short lived when Leicester hit back in fortunate circumstances.

Hodgson, taking one step too many with his kick, allowed Shane Jennings to come in and charge down a clearance.

Ollie Smith hacked the ball forward and Lewis Moody gathered the loose ball before flopping over the line.

Andy Goode converted the score from the right but missed the chance to put his side ahead soon after from the opposite side of the field.

The fly-half didn't have much luck kicking out of hand either as a slice straight into touch led to Sale's second try.

Scrum half James Wigglesworth, only in the team due to Sililo Martens' torn calf muscle, had the presence of mind to kick forward after bursting free from the base of a maul and Magnus Lund picked up the loose ball to score.

Goode did slot over a penalty as Leicester finally managed to come alive and they appeared set to trail by just six at the break until a moment of brilliance from Hodgson blew the game wide open.

After Sebastian Chabal's strong run had put Sale deep in their opponents' 22, the fly-half moved back to attempt a drop goal.

But, instead of going for three, Hodgson kept the ball in hand, throwing two outrageous dummies to breach Leicester's defensive line before passing on to Ripol.

With the conversion successful, Sale headed into the changing room to dry off with one hand already on the trophy, although their grip was severely tested straight after the interval.

It needed some desperate defending to survive a Tigers onslaught, although it crucially resulted in just a Goode penalty that soon proved meaningless when Hodgson knocked over two kicks at goal to make it 29-13.

Desperate times called for desperate measures for director of rugby at Howard on the sidelines and he threw on Austin Healey to try and spark a comeback of Lazarus-type proportions, though it was the introduction of Sam Vesty that finally gave Leicester a spark in open play.

But, with the need for tries growing greater with every minute that passed, a mixture of handling errors and errant passes stopped the five-time champions finding the line as they had to accept falling at the final hurdle again.

It was fitting that Hodgson put the final nail in the Tigers' coffin with a long-range penalty that needed the help of a post to get over, and a drop goal.

Not even a late converted try for Leicester sub James Hamilton could dent Sale's spirit as another Hodgson penalty and a breakaway try from replacement Chris Mayor allowed the celebrations to start in Manchester.

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