Sale Sharks survived a major test of their Gallagher Premiership play-off credentials before subduing struggling Worcester 35-32 in a Sixways thriller.
Worcester, seven points adrift at the Premiership basement before kick-off, led until 13 minutes from time but Sale stayed third above Harlequins following a powerful finish that produced tries for wing Arron Reed, replacement prop Coenie Oosthuizen and number eight Dan du Preez.
It meant that the Sharks secured a bonus point following earlier touchdowns from centre Connor Doherty and wing Byron McGuigan, while fly-half AJ MacGinty kicked four conversions and Kieran Wilkinson one.
Worcester ultimately slipped to a 14th successive league defeat – they have not recorded a Premiership victory since November – but pushed Sale all the way through scrum-half Francois Hougaard’s try hat-trick and claimed two bonus points.
Full-back Jamie Shillcock also crossed – a brilliant solo effort from inside his own half – and he kicked two penalties and three conversions for a 17-point haul, with Sale forced into sustained defence during added time.
Worcester flanker Sam Lewis returned to action after three months out because of a shoulder injury, while fit-again wing Tom Howe also featured as the Warriors targeted a rare Premiership win.
Sale boss Alex Sanderson made nine changes following a narrow victory over Gloucester last time out, handing opportunities to the likes of Doherty and prop Bevan Rodd in a team captained by England flanker Tom Curry.
“That’s one of the moments that will live forever in my head but maybe in his it has completely gone."
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) April 24, 2021
A scoreless opening 15 minutes featured both sides probing for openings to no avail, and Worcester went ahead through a long-range Shillcock penalty after MacGinty missed the target with his opening strike.
Shillcock was back in the action five minutes later and this time it saw him conjure a stunning try.
Warriors’ teenage fly-half Fin Smith kicked out of his own 22 to wing Alex Hearle, who then threw a speculative pass, but Shillcock set off on a touchline sprint, chased his own kick ahead and then regathered ahead of Reed’s challenge to finish majestically.
Shillcock’s second successful penalty opened up an 11-point lead that belied a huge league table gap between the teams, and Sale needed a response as half-time approached.
Unsurprisingly, Sale opted to go through their forwards, setting up strong attacking foundations, and MacGinty’s neat pass sent Doherty over for a try that the fly-half converted.
But Sale could not build on that score and Worcester ended the first half with a degree of control.
Their cause was helped by a yellow card for Reed, who deliberately knocked on to halt a Worcester attack, although Shillcock drifted the resulting penalty chance narrowly wide.
An 11-7 interval lead, though, fairly reflected Worcester’s performance and Sale had plenty of food for thought during the interval.
Worcester had to make their temporary one-man advantage count and it took them just four minutes of the second period to deliver. Smith, as he had been with Warriors’ opening try, was heavily involved, this time gathering a bouncing ball before surging into Sale’s 22 and sending Hougaard over for a well-worked score.
Shillcock added the extras yet Sale hit back strongly, working space in the corner for McGuigan to claim his team’s second touchdown with MacGinty adding a touchline conversion.
But Worcester were not knocked out of their stride, and further pressure almost brought its reward when Warriors’ England centre Ollie Lawrence stretched out for the line. Referee Christophe Ridley, though, ruled out the try after consulting with his television match official David Grashoff, and Sale cleared.
And the Sharks went ahead 13 minutes from time after Curry was freed in space and showed a blistering turn of speed before finding Reed with an exquisite inside pass as Sale went ahead for the first time.
MacGinty’s conversion put Worcester three points behind, and Oosthuizen extended the lead. Hougaard hit back, and did so again after Du Preez’s score, but the Warriors could not reclaim the lead despite throwing everything at Sale during the closing minutes.
Sign up to our mailing list for a weekly digest from the wide world of rugby.Sign Up Now