Saturday, 25th April 2015 @ 16:30
A strong first half performance from Harlequins was enough to see them leave Manchester with a 23-25 victory after a heart-stopping fight back left Sale just short of victory.
It was certainly a game of two halves (plus some) as Charlie Walker, Chris Robshaw, Marland Yarde and Danny Care all scored in the first half to give Harlequins what looked like a comfortable 6-22 lead, as well as a vital bonus point.
However Sale Sharks bounced back in incredible fashion scoring three tries, including two in the final eight minutes to close the gap to just two points. With 80 minutes up on the clock both sides then had opportunities in a pulsating spell of extra time, which finally finished with Quins on top 23-25. The result means both sides are still well and truly in contention for Champions Cup qualification for next season.
On an overcast afternoon in Manchester it was the visitors that started the brighter as they immediately began playing their favoured game, running from deep in their half and keeping the ball in hand.
Great runs from Jack Clifford and Charlie Walker gave the Londoners the territory and in the fifth minute they were rewarded as Harry Sloan charged down a clearing kick and Walker collected to go over. Nick Evans missed the conversion but they took an early 0-5 lead.
Following the try however, it was the home side that began to find some fluidity in their running game and caused Harlequins problems both with their offloading and also at the set piece as the Harlequins scrum was once again under pressure. Not helped by the late withdrawal of captain Joe Marler after failing a late fitness test.
Sale were rewarded with a number of penalties both at the set piece and in open play but they repeatedly turned down the points before eventually Danny Cipriani chose to go for the posts and closed the gap to 3-5.
The waves of Sale attacks continued until the 26th minute when against the run of the play Harlequins once again made a crucial charge down. This time it was Nick Easter from a box kick, which was collected by Care who selflessly put Robshaw in under the posts for a 3-12 lead.
Harlequins were now running with confidence and from the restart Yarde bumped off multiple defenders to reach the halfway line. After a number of quick phases, and even quicker hands, Yarde went over to extend the lead to 3-17 after just 28 minutes. His eighth try of the season.
Cirpriani closed the gap by three with a second penalty but Harlequins struck again before half-time. With time winding down and Harlequins hot on attack, Care made a trademark sniping run to dot over in the corner as the buzzer sounded. Evans was unsuccessful but Harlequins went into the break leading 6-22 with a bonus point already secured.
They came out of the break still in control and extended their lead immediately with another Evans penalty. The score was now 6-25 but these were the last points they would score as the momentum shifted dramatically Sale’s way.
The next 25 minutes were spent almost entirely in the Quins half and desperate defence led to Dave Ward being yellow carded for pulling down a maul. Sale made their man advantage count as replacement Tom Arscott had an overlap on the opposite wing and closed the gap to 13-25.
Harlequins somehow survived the constant pressure for 20 minutes until Arscott went over for his second in the 73rd minute and suddenly the score was 18-25 with both the home side, and the home crowd, sensing a miracle comeback.
Sure enough, only moments later Sale worked their way from the halfway line to the tryline in just a couple of phases as Mark Cueto crossed the whitewash to score, with only the upright stopping the scores from being level. 23-25 with four minutes to play.
If the match wasn’t dramatic enough already, the remaining time would push it over the edge.
From the kick off it was Quins turn to attack as they looked to deny the home side the losing bonus point. Twice rolling mauls fell inches short of the line and Sale looked to clear. With 80 minutes up on the clock Sale were penalised in their own 22m and Quins took the quick tap shocking many in the home crowd who assumed time was up.
However, Harlequins then turned the ball over and it was once again Sale’s chance to sneak an unlikely victory, managing to get 80 metres down field over three heart-stopping minutes before the ball was turned over and cleared and Wayne Barnes could finally call time on the proceedings.
The final score ended 23-25 with a win and bonus point for Harlequins and a losing bonus point for Sale, which sees them still just clear in the race for the Champions Cup qualification.