Sale suffered a major setback in their quest for a play-off spot as they went down to a 25-23 loss to London Irish at the Madejski Stadium on Sunday.
The visitors took command of the tie early on and asked questions of the London Irish defence, with Danny Cipriani held up just short of the line.
That early attacking threat continued, and eventually they opened the scoring with a try. It came after a sustained spell of pressure, and Tom Arscott's clever overlap on the right wing saw him go over towards the corner. Though Cipriani couldn't add the extras, Sale had already shown they were here for a big win.
It was a dominant start from the Sharks, and they could feel aggrieved not to have added to that early five-point lead as they peppered the Sale backline with attack after attack.
But that quick burst out of the blocks had to come to an end, and the Irish began to weather the storm, cutting the gap to a couple through the boot of Chris Noakes.
A second penalty from the London Irish fly-half put the hosts into the lead for the first time 22 minutes in, but he squandered the opportunity to increase that advantage further as his penalty swung just wide.
The game began to settle, with neither side really having any dominance in the mid stages of the first-half, but Sale responded from those penalties with a second try to roar back in front. With just a couple of minutes of the half remaining, Mike Haley was the beneficiary of some quick handling, and he darted into the left corner to undo Irish's good work of the half. But for Cipriani, it was not the ideal 40 minutes, as a second conversion opportunity went begging.
However, with just seconds to play, Irish snatched back the lead with their first try of the afternoon. After a Noakes penalty failed to meet the target, Cipriani's pass to Haley went loose, and that allowed Andrew Fenby to race clear and take advantage of the sloppy handling. Noakes' conversion ensured Irish took a three-point lead into half-time.
Cipriani did finally get some points on the board with a penalty to level the scores, and eight minutes into the half Arscott again crossed the line to put Sale back in front. It came after another good few minutes of Sharks' pressure, and following an Irish scrum he overlapped and went over for his second of the game.
Cipriani's conversion put the lead up to seven, though that lasted just three minutes thanks to the resolute Irish. The hosts mauled towards the post, and though the TMO deemed they had failed to cross, seconds later Alex Lewington did manage to go over when his run saw him over in the corner in what was turning into an exhilarating tie.
Noakes failed to level, but that didn't have too much of an impact as Lewington grabbed his second with just over 20 minutes to play. The speedy wing was able to go under the uprights after racing past Sale bodies, grabbing his second try in just six minutes much to the delight of the Majedski crowd.
This time Noakes did add the extras, but Cipriani's penalty kept Sale within touching distance of turning the game around.
In a tense final ten minutes, Noakes missed a golden opportunity of increasing the lead to a possible five points when his penalty flashed wide, and Sale stormed up towards the Irish 22 in search of snatching victory at the death.
But the Irish held up that attack, and cleared the ball out to secure the win. The victory sees the Exiles pick up their second win in a row, the first time they have achieved that feat since February 2014.
For London Irish:
Tries: Fenby, Lewington 2
Con: Noakes 2
Pen: Noakes 2
For Sale Sharks:
Tries: Arscott 2, Haley
Pen: Cipriani 2
London Irish: 15 Andrew Fenby, 14 Topsy Ojo, 13 Eoin Griffin, 12 Fergus Mulchrone, 11 Alex Lewington, 10 Chris Noakes, 9 Darren Allinson, 8 Tom Guest, 7 Blair Cowan, 6 Jebb Sinclair, 5 Nic Rouse, 4 George Skivington (c), 3 Richard Palframan, 2 David Paice, 1 Tom Court.
Replacements: 16 Jimmy Stevens, 17 Jamie Hagan, 18 Halani Aulika, 19 Dan Leo, 20 Luke Narraway, 21 Tomas O'Leary, 22 Gerard Ellis, 23 Tom Fowlie.
Sale Sharks: 15 Mike Haley, 14 Tom Arscott, 13 Johnny Leota, 12 Sam Tuitupou, 11 Mark Cueto, 10 Danny Cipriani, 9 Chris Cusiter, 8 Josh Beaumont, 7 David Seymour, 6 Dan Braid (c), 5 Nathan Hines, 4 Andrei Ostrikov, 3 Vadim Cobilas, 2 Tommy Taylor, 1 Ross Harrison.
Replacements: 16 Marc Jones, 17 Eifion Lewis-Roberts, 18 Ciaran Parker, 19 Jonathan Mills, 20 Magnus Lund, 21 Will Cliff, 22 Joe Ford, 23 Tom Brady.
Referee: Greg Macdonald
Assistant Referees: Nigel Carrick, Ross Campbell
TMO: Stuart Terheege