Connacht 20 Sale 18
There was drama to the death at the Sportsground but at the end of it Connacht are in control of Pool 3 of the Challenge Cup and poised for the quarter-finals.
But they did it the hard way, initially surrendering a 17-0 lead and after regaining the advantage seven minutes from time, allowed Sale one final chance to win it in stoppage time when they failed to secure their own lineout after a getting a relieving penalty inside their own 22.
Sale won a penalty after the lineout but Faf de Klerk, having earlier missed two easier kicks, opted for the corner rather than try a match-winner from the left touchline but they were guilty of crossing and Connacht survived.
It was no more than Andy Friend’s men deserved as they secured their first win over Sale in six meetings and now head to Bordeaux next week in control of their own destiny.
They hit Sale for two tries in a blistering three-minute spell to lead by 17-0 after 23 minutes and might have been further ahead had they not butchered three lineouts deep inside the visitors’ 22.
But then Bundee Aki attracted sufficient attention off a lineout move to create an opening for his centre partner Kyle Godwin and the Australian international duly punished the visitors’ defence to run a superb line through and score under the posts.
A good hit by Ultan Dillane in the middle of the field forced a sloppy pass from Chris Ashton and Connacht hacked ahead in the confusion for scrumhalf James Mitchell to sprint through to collect and score against his former employers. Jack Carty, having got them off the mark with a 14th-minute penalty, converted both.
Sale got back into contention when Ashton, who scored a hat-trick on his competitive debut for the Sharks when these sides met in October, got in for their opening score of the contest.
De Klerk had a great chance to cut the gap within three minutes of the restart but he hooked his penalty attempt from 25 metres.
But he got Sale right back in contention after 52 minutes when he nabbed their second try, moments after Josh Strauss had an effort disallowed for a forward pass.
However, the reprieve didn’t last long for Connacht with Jono Ross making the hard yards down the right and when Bryn Evans was tackled off the ball by Healy when he passed inside, De Klerk made full use of the advantage to collect and score.
However, he surprisingly failed to add to the conversion from just to the right and Connacht took a five-point lead into the final quarter.
Carty had an opportunity to push that out to eight but his effort to minimise the impact of the wind saw his kick go low and wide before De Klerk edged Sale back in front with a couple of penalties to lead 18-17 with 14 minutes remaining.
Connacht went back in front seven minutes from time when replacement out-half David Horwitz, having opted for the corner moments earlier, got an easier attempt after being held up over the line and the Australian made no mistake with the kick in front of the posts.
That should have been enough but Connacht have not been taking the easy option in this competition but are showing a good taste for victory.
Scorers – Connacht: K Godwin, J Mitchell tries; J Carty 2 cons, pen; D Horwitz pen. Sale Sharks: C Ashton, F de Klerk tries; F de Klerk con, 2 pens.
Connacht: T O’Halloran; C Kelleher, K Godwin, B Aki, M Healy (D Leader 71); J Carty (D Horwitz 63), J Mitchell (C Blade 54); D Buckley (M Burke 67), T McCartney (S Delahunt 63), F Bealham (C Carey 60); U Dillane, J Cannon (Q Roux 48-77); E Masterson (C Fainga’a 54), J Connolly, J Butler.
Sale Sharks: C Ashton; D Solomona, S James, J O’Connor (L James 56), A Reed; K Wilkinson, F de Klerk; R Harrison, R Webber, W John; B Evans, J Phillips (A Ostrikov 73); J Ross, T Curry, J Strauss (B Curry 63).
Referee: P Brousset (France)
Andy Friend said he has no fears about Connacht being turned into a development province again after confirming Cian Kelleher will leave the province after three seasons.