George Ford knew what to expect with the returning Manu Tuilagi and Rohan Janse van Rensburg blocking out daylight in the midfield with their width. Reality checked in after 25 minutes when Faf de Klerk eluded Ben Youngs from a scrum 10 metres from the Leicester line. The South Africa scrum‑half darted across field before straightening. He waited for Tuilagi to get into his stride before flicking a pass to the centre, who had seven metres to go with Ford crouching in front of him. The fly-half’s tackle was copybook but such was the force of the impact and unequal distribution of weight that he buckled on impact.
Tuilagi left Leicester after declining to sign a revised contract that would have cut his pay by 25%, joining the club that had been the first during the lockdown to ask their players to take a drop in wages. There is much of the old Leicester about Sale, direct, unyielding and mean, and the power and persistence of the Sharks were too much for spirited but limited opponents.
One minute after Leicester’s full-back, Freddie Steward, had felled Tuilagi as the centre charged into him, he had to deal with the onrushing Van Rensburg on the other side of the field. This time he got his body position wrong and was left to pick up the pieces as the Sharks ploughed on.
The visitors, seeking their first back-to-back victories on the road in the Premiership since 2014, were dominant throughout in terms of territory and possession. It was only when they switched off in the third quarter and presented Leicester with 10 points that what threatened to be a mismatch turned into something approaching a contest.
De Klerk’s casual clearance was charged down by Hanro Liebenberg and turned into a try, which was followed by Marland Yarde’s pass to no one near his line that forced Luke James to concede a penalty for holding on.
Having trailed 27-9, Leicester’s deficit was down to eight points, but De Klerk’s long-range penalty and Denny Solomona’s bonus-point try snuffed out the revival as Sale, who face Saracens on Wednesday, climbed to second in the table with little social distancing between the four clubs jostling to join Exeter in the play-offs.
Sale’s 20-9 interval lead barely reflected their superiority, not least because of their recurring habit of conceding soft penalties. AJ MacGinty scored their first try after using his centres as a decoy after De Klerk had opened the scoring with a drop goal on the turn.
Leicester’s points had come from three Ford penalties and they lost their openside Luke Wallace following a clash of heads with Tom Curry, who also failed to last the opening half. Jono Ross scored Sale’s third try five minutes after the restart and slick passing replaced route one to Solomona’s profit.
Overwhelmed but willing, Leicester, whose lineout had been their best feature, scored from a driving maul through Jake Kerr before Steward secured what looked to be a losing bonus point only for MacGinty’s late, late penalty to delete it.
Tuilagi had by then retired from the fray. “He exorcised a demon,” said Sale’s director of rugby, Steve Diamond, while the player said: “It was a different feeling not playing here for the Tigers after so many years with the club and my try would have meant nothing if we had lost.”