London Irish 31 Sale Sharks 31
The afterglow of Brentford’s battling draw against Liverpool on Saturday night appeared to infuse London Irish with a similar never-say-die spirit as they produced a remarkable comeback to snatch the same result at the same venue less than 24 hours later.
Not even the devastating impact of a slimmed-down Manu Tuilagi, who on his first-half display looked back to his international best, could prevent Irish from launching a thrilling comeback to overturn a 17-point deficit at half-time.
Indeed Irish came agonisingly close to claiming victory when Paddy Jackson’s 58-metre penalty attempt in the final minute rebounded off the left-hand upright. Jackson had been superb in marshalling the Irish rearguard action while the hard-headed experience and physicality of former Ireland flanker Sean O’Brien from the bench was also a key influence.
"What you saw from Brentford before is a team that fights for everything and we fought for everything and made those moments count," said Les Kiss, Irish's head coach.
"I’m just disappointed we didn’t start. We were disappointed in that first half, but Sale put us under the pump. We just couldn't get our teeth into how we wanted to play and we were the masters of our own grief at times."
Kiss was right. The drama of the finish seemed an improbable outcome at the interval, given Sale’s absolute dominance, spearheaded by Tuilagi’s gainline-breaking muscularity in the week that he was named in England’s 45-man squad for the autumn Test series.
Despite losing almost a stone in weight during the summer, has lost none of his power and the 30 year-old looks sharper for it. He had a hand in at least two of Sale’s four first-half tries.
It was his step inside lock Rob Simmons and break deep into the Irish half that created Sale’s tone-setting first try, with Will Cliff’s offload putting AJ MacGinty over for a try under the posts.
A strong carry by the Sale centre also created the momentum and field position for MacGinty to chip the ball through for Sam James to touch down unopposed.
"His (Tuilagi’s) timing was back to the glory days, he looked really good," said Alex Sanderson, Sale’s director of rugby. "It was good to see, especially with him back in the England team. "Tactically maybe we should have got the ball into his hands a bit more in the second half.
"We used the driving maul in the second half and as a tactic that didn't work. If I had my time again – and everyone's a genius with hindsight - I'd probably try to get something into his hands because it was setting us up really well."
Irish, too passive in defence, overpowered at the breakdown and losing the aerial battle, were barely able to fire a shot as they struggled to contain Tuilagi.
Further Marland Yarde and Will Cliff ensured that Sale had wrapped up the four-try bonus point before the break, but crucially Irish, despite playing with just 30 per cent possession in front of their home crowd, managed to score two tries of their own in just as many visits to the Sale 22.
A strong carry by Matt Rogerson forced Sale to concede a penalty and Ben White quickly tapped and snipped over under the posts while a jinking break by Tom Parton allowed Simmons to dart into the 22 and with White on his shoulder, Agustin Creevy powered over from close range.
The scores not only kept Irish just alive but provided the belief in their half-time changing room that with greater discipline and breakdown control, there were enough chinks in the Sale defensive line to give them a lifeline.
The loss of MacGinty just before half-time with a shoulder injury following a yellow card for Adam Coleman for a dangerous tackle on the fly-half clearly disrupted Sale’s momentum.
But Irish were an irresistible force in the second period, with Terrence Hepetema giving them direction at 12 in a similar fashion to Tuilagi, and Jackson’s distribution bringing out the best of his backline.
Parton finished superbly in the corner to spark the fightback before a yellow card for Jonno Ross gave Irish the extra space for Jackson to attack and another scintillating attack culminated in a second for the full-back.
With the lead now down to seven points, Irish sensed blood, with Curtis Rona finishing off another fine move involving Jackson and O’Brien. Jackson’s touchline conversion levelled the scores, with his long-range miss capping an afternoon of brilliant entertainment.