Rob Baxter claimed Exeter were “transformed” following a second-half red card for lock Sam Skinner as they staged an extraordinary fightback with 14 men to beat Sale.
The Chiefs trailed by 16 points at Sandy Park when Skinner was sent off for a high challenge on Sale’s South African scrum-half Faf de Klerk.
17 unanswered points
But then they scored 17 unanswered points, won 20-19 and secured a home Premiership play-off against the same opponents next Saturday.
“We were a team that was transformed by a red card,” Exeter director of rugby Baxter said.
“Last week (against Northampton) we got transformed by an 18-0 trouncing at half-time. This week it was a red card.
“It just shows you that when we have nowhere to go and we have to stand and fight, we are a good side.
“I am kind of hoping we have been in a bit of a phoney war until now. The last two or three weeks there has always been another game. All of a sudden, there is nothing else.
“If we don’t want to turn up from minute one next week, the season is gone. And I genuinely do think that will change us and give us a real direction and purpose.
“Once we’ve got a real direction and purpose, we look a very, very good team. To do that to Sale with 14 men in the second half is pretty impressive.”
Exeter somehow turned the game on its head after Skinner’s 54th-minute exit, storming to victory through tries by Luke Cowan-Dickie and Stu Townsend, while skipper Joe Simmonds kicked two penalties and two conversions, including a penalty clincher nine minutes from time.
Sale, seeking a first Premiership final appearance for 15 years, will return to Devon next weekend, yet one more try when they led 19-3 and keeping Exeter at a safe distance would have meant the game going to the north-west instead.
Baxter added: “To come out and win that game, given the position we were in, there are not many teams that are going to do that. It’s a great credit to the players.
“But it is going to run out if we keep thinking we can shift our game so much from half to half, because sooner or later, teams are not going to let us do that.
“It is a semi-final now, an all or nothing game.”
Wing Byron McGuigan, fly-half AJ MacGinty and wing Arron Reed scored tries for Sale, with MacGinty booting two conversions, but ultimately they were undone by Exeter’s astonishing resilience as they were edged out on a day when their England centre Manu Tuilagi made a strong first start for nine months.
And they also suffered a cruel injury blow on the stroke of full-time as influential playmaker MacGinty was carried off.
MacGinty and injured team-mates Akker van der Merwe and Cameron Neild look set to miss next week’s play-off.
“I am gutted for the outcome of the game, which I think we should have had more control over, but more so for the lads who got injured,” Sale director of rugby Alex Sanderson said.
“The obvious thing was the set-piece discipline, and we didn’t take all of our opportunities.
“I was very confident coming here. We had trained well, and the feeling has been really good in the camp. We are not going to lose that feeling in a week, backing up games.
“There were loads of things to take from it. I just felt like we had it at 50 minutes and we blew it, but Exeter are a very resilient, well-coached side that know what works for them, and they are efficient at doing it.”