Heartbreak for NEC Harlequins, who came so close to ending their 18 month streak without an away win in the Zurich Premiership, after David Slemen failed to convert a stoppage time try from replacement flank forward Luke Sherriff.
It was Slemen's fourth miss of the night, in a game of high drama that went all the way down to the wire, but for all their good form, where they outplayed Sale for long periods, Quins had to settle for a bonus point - scant consolation to a side missing eight players, six of which could be considered as likely regulars.
Sale began the game well and an early break from Scottish international scrum half Bryan Redpath had the visitors defence under pressure inside a minute, but for all their probing from the home side it was Quins who went ahead.
Jim Evans had started the move, taking the ball up before creating a ruck just outside the Sale twenty-two. Although the home side won possession, Quins were quickly in their opponents faces to force Sale into some sloppy passing that allowed Quins to quickly recycle the ball across to the left, where Pat Sanderson, Viliame Satala and Ben Gollings all combined in a high speed attack down the left flank that created an opening for Sanderson to stretch over in the corner to score.
Slemen was unable to convert from the touchline and Sale made the most of their good fortune to quickly hit back from the restart, when an offside decision went against the visitors and Charlie Hodgson pulled back three of the five point deficit with a well-struck penalty.
A good restart from Quins saw Jason Robinson having to touchdown a delicate grubber from Slemen in his in-goal area as Matt Moore bore down at pace on the England back.
Although Nathan Williams recovered the clearance and put in a kick and chase that Robinson had to again defend, it was the home side who threatened to score next after they made useful yardage from a lineout and twice went close to a score down their left hand side with Hodgson playing a pivotal role on both occasions.
Hodgson and Redpath were always posed a threat to the Quins defence, and a high speed attack involving Mark Cueto almost led to a home score until the ball arrived to Steve Hanley, who was unable to hold on to a sharp pass with the visitors defence at full stretch.
It was Quins turn to attack now and after winning a Sale lineout, Satala put in a testing kick to the corner that although claimed by the home side, saw Quins gain a scrum after pressure from Moore.
The visitors restored their five point lead minutes later when Nathan Williams dropped a goal after Quins worked their way deep into the Sale twenty-two from a rolling maul.
Sale responded with a sweeping attack involving Redpath and both centres, but poor handling from Alex Sanderson 15 metres out saw the attack come to nothing. However, a scuffle on the halfway line involving Scott Lines and Ace Tiatia ended with Quins Samoan hooker sin-binned for an alleged late hit on Sale fly-half Hodgson.
Slemen released the pressure on the Quins defence with a big clearance following another Sale attack, and when Robinson tried to move the ball too quickly he only succeeded in putting Peter Angelsea in trouble which led to a very kickable penalty that Slemen hit wide.
From the resulting clearance the visitors won a lineout that produced a devastating rolling maul that could only be stopped illegally by the home side and Slemen atoned for his earlier miss by landing his kick to see Quins turn around 11-3 to the good.
Quins had done enough in the first half to suggest that a combination of their aggressive defence and Sale's inability to convert pressure into points would see them home, but it would mean keeping a clean sheet in the opening minutes of the second period, especially with Tiatia still in the sin-bin, but that didn't happen.
Almost immediately Sale got a rolling maul going, Hodgson kicked through and Mel Deane was quickly on to the ball to form a ruck, where Redpath was allowed to stake a claim on the ball as it ran loose.
With the momentum now with the home side, prop Jim Thorp was quickly up in support to continue the move and supply Hodgson with the pass that allowed him to stretch forward to score, adding the conversion to draw his side to within a point.
Quins pressured the home side immediately, with Tani Fuga forcing Hodgson into a hurried clearance that fell nicely for Williams, who set his sights for an attempted drop goal from fully 40 metres that was wide and short of its target.
A few minutes later and Slemen was given another penalty chance after the hosts were penalised at a lineout, but that too was wide.
Nick Duncombe then came on for Scott Bemand and for a moment Quins looked to have retaken the initiative, but it was the hosts who went very close with a five man move by the backs that ended when Hanley failing to catch the vital pass.
Former Quins back Vaughan Going came on for Hanley almost immediately and it was this more than anything that finally helped to settle the match.
A lineout on the right was switched across to the opposite side where Hodgson gave Mark Cueto, appearing on his opposite wing, a narrow channel to run down the left flank, and the Sale winger beat three men along the touchline before running the ball behind the posts to score.
Hodgson's conversion meant that Quins would need a converted try themselves if they were to win it, and for the next few minutes the visitors battered away at the home defence in an attempt to regain the lead.
Then with time almost up, Duncombe and Gollings combined to set Williams for a last ditch run for the line, and although the young Aussie was halted a few yards short, Quins won a lineout from where Sherriff eventually popped up to score.
Slemen's kick had the height and the distance but not the direction and with Sale kicking the restart long, Quins had too much to do. After Dan Harris had made a decisive run forward, the ball was played back to Hodgson who thumped home a drop goal to seal the win.
Cruel luck on Quins, and another opportunity went begging against a side struggling to find the form that served them so well last term.
Harlequins fan Ed Atkin won the Etihad Airways 'Up and Under' competition at the Northampton Saints game. As a result, he and a friend have won a holiday to Abu Dhabi courtesy of Etihad Airways and the Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority.