Exeter Chiefs continued their impressive start to this season’s Champions Cup as they edged Sale Sharks 22-20 at the AJ Bell Stadium on Sunday.
It wasn’t pretty but a penalty try and scores from Stuart Hogg and Luke Cowan-Dickie, as well as eight points from Joe Simmonds, saw them prevail.
For Sale they crossed through Akker van der Merwe (2) and Jono Ross but this loss means they stay in third spot in the group, eight points off Exeter.
The Sharks staged a tremendous rally after trailing 22-8 after 25 minutes and scored the only try of the second half but in the end ran out of time and a second defeat in three matches left their qualification hopes hanging by a thread.
Despite scoring three tries before half-time, the Chiefs failed for the first time to secure a bonus point but, after beating all three opponents in Pool 2, they have a stranglehold on the group at the halfway stage.
Hooker Van der Merwe scored two first-half tries for the Sharks to keep them in the game but they are now below Glasgow in the group and need to beat Exeter in the return fixture at Sandy Park next Sunday to keep alive their hopes of only a second appearance in the knockout stages.
Sale, who were without lock Jean-Luc du Preez through suspension and had England flanker Tom Curry sin-binned for a professional foul, drew first blood courtesy of a penalty from fly-half Rob du Preez.
However, the first quarter was dominated by Scotland full-back Hogg, who made the break that led to the opening try before scoring himself.
Hogg was initially denied by a terrific last-ditch tackle by winger Chris Ashton although his good work was undone by Curry, who in the next play tackled scrum-half Nic White from an offside position and was given a yellow card.
FULL TIME: @SaleSharksRugby 20 @ExeterChiefs 22#SALvEXE pic.twitter.com/B3GD024Vc8
— Exeter Chiefs (@ExeterChiefs) December 8, 2019
Referee Mathieu Raynal awarded a penalty try and the Sharks were down to 14 men when England winger Jack Nowell got around Sam James to create the opening for Hogg to kick ahead and touch down.
Hogg was hurt in the act of scoring and failed his head injury assessment, leaving Olly Woodburn to play the rest of the match in his absence, and Simmonds added a penalty to his earlier conversion to stretch the visitors’ lead to 15-3.
Sale pulled a try back midway through the first half when second-row Bryn Evans charged down White’s attempted clearance kick and the ball fell kindly for Van der Merwe to score the first of his two tries.
Du Preez was wide with the conversion attempt and the Sharks fell further behind in the 25th minute when England hooker Cowan-Dickie forced his way over from close range for Exeter’s third try, to which Simmonds added his third goal.
Van der Merwe grabbed his second try, courtesy of a driving maul, five minutes later and Sale winger Marland Yarde, chosen ahead of Denny Solomona, ought to have added another after Faf de Klerk and Van Der Merwe had kept the ball alive only to drop it over the line.
Yarde, hoping to impress watching England head coach Eddie Jones, made way at half-time for Solomona after becoming the latest player to fail a head injury assessment.
Sale dominated for long periods of the second half, with returning centre James taking them close with a clean break, and they took advantage of the sin-binning of Exeter’s substitute prop Ben Moon for persistent team infringing after 68 minutes.
After having a try disallowed at a driving maul, skipper Ross finally applied the finishing touches to a sustained spell of pressure by crashing over for Sale’s third try six minutes from the end.
Du Preez kicked his second goal but the visitors did enough to hang on for a seventh successive victory over the home side.
#STMHR | 23-9
C'est terminé à Ernest-Wallon : le MHR s'incline sur le score de 23 à 9.#TEAMMHR pic.twitter.com/Yi1Ls8HGmG
— Montpellier Rugby (@MHR_officiel) December 8, 2019
In the other game taking place at the same time, Toulouse made it three triumphs out of three in Pool 5 after they defeated Montpellier 23-9.
Victory moves the French giants six points clear of Gloucester at the summit, with Montpellier a further two points back in the pool standings.
The Top 14 champions crossed the whitewash twice in the match, both through Romain Ntamack, while Thomas Ramos fired over 13 points.
Benoit Paillaugue responded for Montpol with two penalties while Frans Steyn added one of his own as the visitors suffered a second pool loss.