Premiership: Five takeaways from Sale Sharks v Leicester Tigers as Alex Sanderson’s men win game of fine margins

James While
Sale Sharks after try

Following the 21-13 win for Sale Sharks over Leicester Tigers at the AJ Bell Stadium on Sunday, here’s our five takeaways from the Premiership semi-final.

The top line

A thrilling and physical battle at a packed AJ Bell Stadium saw a George Ford-inspired Sale Sharks sneak past Leicester Tigers to meet Saracens in the 2023 Premiership Final.

It was a game of the finest margins and the closest calls, one of those matches in which you make your own luck to edge those tight moments. Sale managed to win virtually every one of the crucial plays, possibly with just a tad more firepower in the backline and perhaps a little more heft in the brilliantly contested gainline battle, where referee Wayne Barnes delivered a masterclass of intelligent and empathetic officiating.

The first-half try from Tom Roebuck was one engineered by a brilliant play around by Ford and the England 10 wasn’t done there; in the 62nd minute he ran hard at the Tigers line before whipping out a one bounce pass that fortuitously was gathered by a flying Arron Reed into the left corner.

A 68th minute penalty allowed Ford to take Sale to the comfort of a two-score lead for the first time and despite an incredible effort from the Tigers pack and breakdown specialists, it was too much too late. Sale, the team that led the table for much of the season, are through to their first final since 2006.

Tigers margins

Losing Handre Pollard before kick off was a massive blow to Leicester – few teams could cope with such a setback but the shift that 39-year-old Jimmy Gopperth put in in only his second start at 10 for the club was outstanding. Gopperth was at the heart of everything Tigers did well and his accuracy off the tee and from hand with the boot reminded us all of the immense contribution to the Premiership of this superb Kiwi midfielder.

But the margins that went Sale’s way were also the margins that caused Tigers to lose. Losing Dan Cole to a yellow card saw them weather out a sin-bin period without conceding a point, but as Cole was trotting back on, their last act was to concede a 45th minute penalty which Ford duly slotted.

In the last 10 minutes despite being eight points down, Tigers had every opportunity to strike again with two attempts at corner kicks to take the driving lineout, but the execution of both kicks, one from Jack van Poortvliet and one from Charlie Atkinson (on for Gopperth) were woeful for players of this standard and both men overkicked into in-goal when a continuity position was absolutely imperative.

Given that Tigers were eight points down at the first touch kick, one wonders why they didn’t take the quick three pointer to leave themselves eight minutes to score a try, but pressure does strange things to the mind, and in this case the kicking skills of two Leicester youngsters.

Defensive steel

Sale are one of the hardest sides to break down in the Premiership and yet again they managed to concede only one try all match. Their chaotic effectiveness at the breakdown is one based upon sheer power and throwing in big players at low angles to create havoc, and in this regard, Jonny Hill, Jono Ross, Tom Curry and the Du Preez brothers were at their brilliant best shutting down the Tigers jackal threat whilst slowing down any thought of quick ball that they might be looking for.

Tigers carried magnificently all afternoon, with Jasper Wiese smashing 14 times for 32 powerful metres and the outstanding George Martin running tirelessly into the blue wall where Tom Curry helped himself to a couple of turnovers via isolated carries.

On the flip side, the Leicester defence also can take immense pride in their outing. Tommy Reffell snared a hat-trick of poaches at ruck time, none more important that his effort in the 34th minute as Sale were camped on the Tigers’ line. And just two minutes later, Ben Youngs’ committed effort in the corner prevented Roebuck crashing over for his second, with the England nine concussing himself in his last ditch effort to hold the Tigers line.

Modern rugby these days is all about tries, but this was a game to admire the brilliance of both defences and the commitment of two wonderful packs going hammer and tongs at each other on the gainline and in terms of an entertainment spectacle, the match lost nothing for the dominance of the defensive efforts.

Two pivot plan

Whilst Ford was out injured until early this year, Sale’s Rob du Preez showed what an outstanding fly-half he is as he steered Sale to a solid position at the start of the season. With Ford back, Du Preez has moved across to 13, acting as a second playmaker to take pressure off the England pivot and the resulting midfield partnership (with Manu Tuilagi at 12) has simply lit up the Sale backline.

With modern defences wary of the 50:22 and looking to have back three moving to cover, it allows Du Preez and Sale to strike with three points of kick – nine or 10 but then wide in the 13 channel, something almost unique tactically in the Premiership. He and Ford’s ability to move the opposition back three around and vary the point of attack relies upon a brilliant kick chase game, pinpoint communication and accurate execution. And that’s exactly what they delivered all afternoon with Ford teasing the whole of the Tigers back three time and time again to create mayhem at the back.

A word for Joe Carpenter who matched Freddie Steward catch for catch and metre for metre. He is the man that ensures that the Ford-Du Preez barrage is effective and his tireless chasing is one of the features of Sale’s tactics. All three Sale men were outstanding on Sunday at the AJ Bell and it was this three-point kicking strategy that created enough space and confusion for Sale to execute and score their tries.

Looking forward

Tigers’ proud journey is at an end and their title is gone but considering the disruption they’ve suffered all season with coaching staff, they can look back with satisfaction at their work. Had Pollard been fit, he may well have been the difference between two outstanding sides, but his understudy Gopperth will look back with pride at potentially his last match for Leicester as he is as yet unsigned for next season.

Sale will walk away with some pride but also annoyance that in two weeks’ time they appear almost certainly to be without Ben Curry (hamstring) and Dan du Preez (shoulder/arm). But on the flip side, they’ll know they’ve just out muscled the masters of the power and kick game and they’ll also take comfort in the fact they have the forwards to prevent the fast ruck ball that Saracens rely upon to inject pace into their backline. One of those forwards, Ross, played his last game at the AJ Bell on Sunday – a brilliantly abrasive back-row who will take everything in his soul to Twickenham in a fortnight and, with Ben Curry and Dan du Preez unavailable, he is a key player in that fixture.

For the neutral there will be a hint of romance in the Sale v Saracens – a chance for director of rugby Alex Sanderson to take back some of his home produce to face a club where he cultivated so many wonderful moments. It will be an epic battle, one that will be won by gainline intensity and defensive pressure, two aspects of the game that both of the season’s outstanding sides Sarries and Sale excel in, and a fitting end to a great season on the pitch for PRL, but one they might like to forget off pitch.

READ MORE: Premiership: George Ford boots Sale Sharks past Leicester Tigers to final