After 14 years of trying, Sale could finally savour the rarefied taste of silverware again after edging a close-fought, ill-disciplined affair that may yet signal their re-emergence as a serious force.
It was 2006 when a star-studded Sharks so gloriously toppled Leicester in the Premiership final at Twickenham and not much has gone right since. Ultimately, though, they proved too strong for Harlequins in this rearranged Premiership Rugby Cup final and victory was achieved with a distinctly South African flavour.
Faf de Klerk, the Springboks’ World Cup-winning scrum-half, came off the bench to score a well-taken try while Robert du Preez orchestrated affairs at fly-half, with brothers Jean-Luc and Dan also playing key roles.
Sale trailed 19-10 in the final quarter but Dan du Preez crossed for a converted try and a penalty then edged them in front before De Klerk added gloss to the victory.
Sale’s director of rugby, Steve Diamond, also introduced England centre Manu Tuilagi in the second half and said: “Manu and Faf coming on made a difference. Faf speeded the ball up at the ruck; he took the game away from Harlequins, but that’s what world-class players do.”
Harlequins captain, Chris Robshaw, will leave the club the end of the current campaign and had hoped to bow out with a winners’ medal in his pocket.
But it was not to be and Quins head of rugby, Paul Gustard, said: “We’re disappointed, of course, that we have not won for Chris, and Chris has not won for himself. Two or three decisions went against us, but it’s a young, developing squad and we have to learn from these experiences.”
Harlequins lost lock Stephan Lewies to the sin bin early on before Sale led when their lively hooker, Curtis Langdon, emerged from a thicket of players to cross the line. Robert du Preez added the conversion and a penalty to make it 10-0, before Quins hit back with two penalties from Marcus Smith.
In the 24th minute, Sale lost flanker Ben Curry to an ankle injury and he was replaced by his twin brother Tom. Quins forward James Chisholm showed intelligence to dive over the line from close range and Smith converted before adding a penalty to give his side a 16-10 advantage at half-time.
After Smith kicked his fourth penalty, De Klerk and Tuilagi were introduced and Dan du Preez barrelled over in the 66th minute for a try his brother converted, cutting the deficit to two points. With seven minutes remaining, Will Evans conceded a penalty that Rob du Preez kicked to put Sale back in front before De Klerk scampered over inside the left channel in the closing stages, sparking wild celebrations.