Harlequins 19 Sale 29
Sale blew a massive hole in Harlequins Heineken Cup campaign in a thrilling encounter at The Stoop.
Victory revives Sale’s hopes, but three defeats leave Quins rock bottom of Pool Five and requiring a miracle to reach the quarter-finals.
Harlequins knew it was win or bust, and began handicapped by the loss of England scrum-half Danny Care, suspended for one game following a dangerous tackle against Leeds last week. Karl Dickson took his place.
Both teams showed their attacking intentions from the whistle, but it was Sale who made the first breakthrough with a stunning seventh-minute try.
Nick Macleod fielded a high ball and sparked a counter-attack involving Mathew Tait, Lee Thomas and Ben Cohen combining to send Dwayne Peel through an extended defence. Charlie Hodgson converted.
And before Quins could gather their thoughts, Sale doubled their lead.
Neil Briggs was not tackled properly by Gonzalo Tiesi, and the hooker’s break so focused the home defence that they failed to confront the inside runner Macleod until it was too late. Hodgson again converted for an emphatic 14-0 lead.
When Quins did get some momentum, Lee Thomas produced a ferocious tackle on hard-running home captain Will Skinner that left the flanker prostrate for three minutes.
Sale were organised and disciplined, repulsing a succession of home attacks with big hits and closed ranks.
It took something special to open up the Mancunians, and former All Black fly-half Nick Evans produced it in the 19th minute. Shaping to move the ball right, Evans caught the whole defence wrong-footed by stepping inside, chipping Mark Cueto, and scoring a try which he also converted.
But the crowd were still celebrating when Sale hit back, scoring a sensational try 10 seconds after the re-start. Nick Easter lost the high ball under pressure, and David Seymour was first to the rebound, haring clear of the cover. Hodgson’s conversion left Quins facing a mountain.
After so many dull games and so much debate about the breakdown zone, this was glorious entertainment in bright winter sunshine, although the home crowd were numbed into near silence by the venom of the visitors’ tackling and incisive finishing – three visits to the Quins 22, three tries.
Harlequins managed to prevent a fourth touchdown from the visitors’ fourth attack on their line in the 34th minute. Cueto was halted, but offloaded well to Seymour who needed three tacklers to drive him into touch.
Within minutes, Quins were back in contention, scoring an absolute beauty. Six passes across the field and back pulled Sale asunder, then Chris Robshaw and Chris Brooker released David Strettle up the right wing for a searing score. Evans conversion attempt was wide of the near post.
Fittingly, Sale had the last word of the half when Hodgson rifled over a 35-metre penalty from the right on 40 minutes.
Quins revived the crowd, and his team, with a try four minutes after the break. Quins battered their way to the Sale line, and when Briggs held out Robshaw, Easter burrowed over and Evans converted.
Sale smashed straight back yet again with a candidate for try of the season.
Cueto’s inside pass to Hodgson saw the fly-half bemuse the defence before passing inside to Seymour. He moved the ball on, with David Bishop playing in Tait who sent Cohen flying in on the left for his 33rd European try in both competitions – and a four-try bonus point for his club.
Tom Williams replaced George Lowe after 66 minutes, his first Heineken Cup action since faking a blood injury to his mouth in last season’s home quarter-final defeat by Leinster.