They left it late, but a cameo from scrum-half Faf de Klerk inspired Sale to their first silverware since their Premiership triumph in 2006, in the Premiership Rugby Cup final.
The introduction of De Klerk was the game’s turning point as he helped to rescue a nine-point deficit. But he pointed to a half-time rant from Steve Diamond, Sale’s director of rugby, as the true wake-up call.
“It was good to see the passion. He said he wanted us to stay calm, but I think we needed a bit of that and it was good to see the boys react,” the South African World Cup winner said.
“Sometimes you need a bit of old-school to get you going.”
For Harlequins, who conquered Sale a month ago and beat them in the final of this competition in 2013, it was not the farewell they had planned for their captain Chris Robshaw. Paul Gustard, Harlequins’ director of rugby, said he was “bitterly disappointed” after coming so close.
“Disappointed, of course, that we have not won for Chris, and Chris has not won for himself,” he said.
“Faf made a big difference when he came on – his kicking was more accurate, with more depth.”
Notwithstanding the competition’s reputation as a second-tier competition, this was still a final, a fact which brought with it customary intensity and niggle. Both teams, littered with star names even if not at full strength, looked to assert a psychological dominance in the opening exchanges, with Mike Brown and Ben Curry – who later had to depart due to an ankle injury – never far away from skirmishes.
Sale, playing on their home ground as the competition’s top seeds, knew they had a power and weight advantage and they decided early that was the route to take. They pinned the visitors into their own 22 and, from there, the anaconda squeeze came.
After three Harlequins indiscretions, Stephan Lewies was sent to the sin bin and Sale struck, with Curtis Langdon dotting down at the back of a motoring maul. There must have been some real g-force in it, too, as Langdon consequently spewed his guts up.
After Rob du Preez and Marcus Smith exchanged penalties, Sale began to take their foot off the gas, their discipline costing them dear.
No 8 Dan du Preez was wound up by Danny Care, which saw a penalty reversed in favour of the visitors, and they began to grow in confidence, to the point where they outgrew their hosts. Quins showed, too, that they possess a punchy closerange game to match that of Sale, and when No8 James Chisholm dotted down, it was no more than they deserved.
When Smith added a further three points, after another Jake Cooper-Woolley scrum transgression, Harlequins were in the driving seat. There was always the lingering feeling, however, that Sale, with World Cup winners and finalists on the bench, were always going to provide some form of response. That response took a while to arrive. Smith extended Harlequins’ lead to nine from the tee, but then came De Klerk, then came Manu Tuilagi.
When the home side realised that their unstoppable driving maul was going to be the way to get back into this, their task looked easier. Dan du Preez’s score from the tail of another maul set up a two-point finish.
That was enough to set Sale back on the straight and narrow. And when Quins flanker Will Evans was too overzealous at a ruck, Rob du Preez gave Sale the lead. De Klerk’s last-minute sniping try was the icing on the Sale cake, putting the trophy’s destination beyond doubt.
England wing Joe Cokanasiga will today make his first appearance in almost a year, bringing an end to his injury nightmare, after being named as a replacement for Bath against Gloucester at the Rec.
Cokanasiga has not played a competitive match since scoring two tries for England against the United States at last year’s World Cup, taking his Test record to seven tries in nine appearances for his country.
The 22-year-old injured a knee in Japan and was unable to train for Bath on his return from the World Cup, with the club at the time unhappy with the initial information provided by the Rugby Football Union on Cokanasiga’s injury.
The 6ft 4in wing subsequently underwent surgery in January, with Bath unable to provide a definitive timeline for his return.
Cokanasiga’s last game for the club came in May 2019, making his return a welcome boost for Stuart Hooper’s side in their bid to make the play-offs. Bath are third.