After 14 years of trying, Sale could finally savour the rarefied taste of silverware again after edging a close-fought, ill-disciplined affair which may yet signal their re-emergence as a serious force. It was 2006 when a star-studded Sharks side so gloriously toppled Leicester in the Premiership final at Twickenham and not much has gone right since; not so much as a top-four finish.
Ultimately, though, they proved too strong for a valiant Harlequins in this Premiership Rugby Cup final, rearranged after being postponed before lockdown in mid-March, 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 clinch the trophy in the closing stages with a well-taken try while Rob du Preez orchestrated affairs at fly-half, with brothers Jean-luc and Dan also playing key roles.
For Quins, and captain Chris Robshaw in particular, there was only bitter disappointment. Robshaw will leave the club after 16 seasons at 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 as Sale did enough, just about, to run out victors, and now attention will turn to sealing a top-four finish and title challenge.
Paul Gustard’s men were placed on a team warning by referee Tom Foley for repeated offences before lock Stephan Lewies was sinbinned inside the 10th minute. Moments later Sale forged ahead as Dan du Preez expertly fielded a line-out and found the lively hooker, Curtis Langdon, who emerged from a thicket of players to cross the line.
Rob du Preez added the conversion and a penalty to make it 10-0, which should have been the signal for Sale to take control. But Quins showed impressive character to steady themselves, defend their line with gusto and hit back with two penalties from Smith.
In the 24th minute, Sale lost flanker Ben Curry to an ankle injury and he was replaced by twin brother Tom as the visitors began to probe with Danny Care increasingly to the fore at the breakdown. Shortly after the half hour, No 8 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 interval advantage.
Sale’s discipline continued to prove their undoing and, after Smith booted his fourth penalty, De Klerk and Manu Tuilagi were introduced by the hosts.
The pair soon made their presence felt and Dan du Preez barrelled over in the 66th minute for a try which his brother improved, cutting Quins’ lead to just two points.
With seven minutes remaining, Will Evans conceded a penalty which 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.