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The Exiles were made to work hard for their victory by a committed Sharks team that defended well but offered little threat in attack.
Having enjoyed playing in Indian summer conditions over the past three weekends, London Irish had to contend with a dramatic drop in temperature caused by a cold wind that brought rain showers in the first half and developed into continuous rain in the second leaving the teams to cope with a greasy ball and heavy underfoot conditions .
With Bob Casey marshalling his forwards, it didn’t take long for them to establish their dominance over their opposite numbers, especially in the lineout where Nick Kennedy continued to challenge for a starting place for England in the forthcoming autumn internationals. Behind the pack Paul Hodgson expertly guided his teammates about pitch.
With the pack leading the way Irish dominated territory and possession but struggled to show a return thanks to the efforts of a Sharks defence that proved resilient in their 22.
After a scoreless opening quarter during which he missed with a drop goal and penalty kicks, Peter Hewat eventually opened the scoring with a penalty goal for the Exiles in the 28th minute.
Four minutes later a clever kick by the Sharks scrum half Richard Wigglesworth put Irish under rare pressure five metres out from their try line for the first time in the match. The Exiles defended the initial assault but when Sale set a rolling maul they managed to drive over the try line and prop forward Eifion Roberts was credited with the touchdown. Nick MacLeod, playing at out half in place of the injured Charlie Hodgson, missed the conversion.
With the half drawing to a close Irish maintained their dominance of territory and possession. They were finally rewarded for their enterprise in the 37th minute when an attacking move that originated just inside the Sale half and featured a brilliant break down the left by Elvis Seveali'i, saw Sailosi Tagicakibau take the pass and run around Mark Cueto and through Ben Cohen’s attempted tackle to score in the corner. Hewat's conversion bounced off the upright. However, the full back was to have the final say when he kicked a penalty on the stroke of half -time to leave Irish leading 11-5 at the break.
With weather conditions deteriorating the opening exchanges of the second period mirrored the pattern of the first. The Irish pack continued to dominate especially at the set pieces and at the breakdown where Steffon Armitage and Chris Hala'Ufia were at their marauding best.
Irish suffered an early set back in the 45th minute when Adam Thompstone was removed from the field on a stretcher having suffered an ankle injury. He was replaced by Peter Richards.
Against the run of play, Sale reduced the lead through a second MacLeod penalty on 46 minutes and while the score lifted the home side temporarily, their attack carried little cutting edge.
The home team were forced to play with poor quality ball in the face of unrelenting pressure. More often than not Sale were left with little option but to kick away possession, Wigglesworth and Cohen in particular being wasteful in terms of accuracy and distance. Chris Malone and Hewat were content to return the errant kicks with interest or with counter-attacking moves that always threatened.
With the Irish pack now lead by Clarke Dermody, it was the visitors that were playing all the rugby much to the annoyance of the home crowd of almost 7,000.
The final exchanges of the match were marred by the sending off of Peter Richards for apparently throwing a punch at Neil Briggs in an off-the-ball incident. Despite going one man down Irish held out comfortably until the final whistle.
Scorers: Sale Sharks: Try: Roberts (30). Penalty goals: MacLeod (46). London Irish: Try: Tagicakibau (37). Penalty goals: Hewat 2 (28, 40).
Scoring sequence (Sale Sharks first): 0-3, 5-3, 5-8, 5 -11 (half-time) 8 -11.
Sale Sharks: 15. M Vakacegu, 14. M Cueto, 13. M Tait, 12. A Tuilagi, 11. B Cohen (rep: J Kennedy, 70), 10. N MacLeod , 9. R Wigglesworth, 1. A Sheridan, 2. M Schwalger (rep: M Jones, 29), 3. E Roberts, 4. B Cockbain (rep: D Tait, 50), 5. D Schofield, 6. J Gaskell, 7. D Seymour, 8. S Koyamibole (rep: N Briggs, 55).
London Irish: 15. P Hewat, 14. A Thompstone (rep: P Richards, 45)(red card, 75), 13. E Seveali’i, 12. S Mapusua, 11. S Tagicakibau, 10. C Malone (rep: R Lamb, 70), 9. P Hodgson, 1. D Murphy (rep: C Dermody, 55), 2. D Coetzee (rep: D Paice, 45)), 3. P Ion (rep: F Rautenbach, 45) , 4. N Kennedy, 5. B Casey (captain)(rep: A Perry, 72), 6. R Thorpe (rep: D Danaher, 55), 7. S Armitage, 8. C Hala’Ufia.
Referee: Mr G Garner (RFU)