The Premiership leaders Sale showed their title credentials as they edged out fellow high-flyers Saracens 22-20 in a festive thriller. It is now 12 home league victories on the spin for the Sharks, who scored three tries in difficult conditions to go clear at the summit.
A repeat of last season’s Premiership final, both teams went into this packed-out clash at Salford Stadium on the back of mixed results in the Champions Cup.
There were a number of handling errors early on as both teams sought to get to grips with the swirling wind. However, Mark McCall’s Sarries, who got the better of Connacht in Europe, were first on the board as Owen Farrell kicked a routine close-range penalty after Sharks lost out at a scrum.
The hosts, beaten 37-28 by Leinster last weekend, responded with some vigour and in the 18th minute they bagged a classic pushover try. The Argentinian Agustín Creevy barged over following a successful maul, with George Ford’s conversion making it 7-3.
By the time the game entered its second quarter Sale were starting to hold sway, though a break from either side always looked on the cards. Saracens withstood some big pressure from the hosts, but with the final action of the first half they were presented with a gift to send them in ahead at the break.
Ivan van Zyl easily intercepted a shocking Ford pass and darted unopposed to touch down under the posts. Farrell’s boot handed the visitors a 10-7 interval advantage. However, Sale needed only four minutes of the second period to retake the lead.
The backs shifted the ball wide to Tom Roebuck, and he dived over but Ford’s conversion was wind-affected and unsuccessful. This intriguing clash was there for either side to take, and Sale scored again before 50 minutes were up.
The replacement Luke Cowan-Dickie powered over after the hosts won a lineout, with Ford this time successful off a post as his kick stretched the lead to 19-10.
A Sale offside handed Farrell a simple kick to reduce the arrears to six points, but Alex Sanderson’s Sharks stuck at their task and soon got the three points back through Ford. When Gareth Simpson scored and Farrell converted expertly to bring the score back to 22-20, though, tension among the home support increased again with 10 minutes left.
Ford saw a late penalty attempt strike a post, but that was inconsequential as the near 10,000-strong home crowd went on to celebrate a truly hard-earned victory.
The Fiji centre Virimi Vakatawa scored a flowing solo try to seal a 21-13 victory for Bristol at Kingston Park and extend Newcastle’s losing run to 11 matches.
Vakatawa made a mazy run from midfield to score Bristol’s second try when the visitors led by a single point. Harry Thacker had gone over for their first try before Gabriel Oghre added a third late in the game.
Newcastle had been in touch at 7-6 down but it took until the last play for Kiran McDonald to finally cross the line for the hosts. It was a familiar tale for Newcastle at Kingston Park, with the home side very competitive and defending well but failing to convert their chances.
They have now lost nine Premiership matches and two European Challenge Cup ties this season.
This article was amended on 27 December 2023 to correct a name – the Sale player whose intercepted pass led to a Saracens try was George Ford, not Gus Warr.