Exeter Chiefs 20 Sale Sharks 19
Gallagher Premiership champions Exeter staged an extraordinary fightback with 14 men to beat Sale 20-19 and book a home play-off against the same opponents.
For much of a gripping contest in the Devon sunshine, Sale served notice of their title credentials, leading by 16 points when Chiefs lock Sam Skinner was sent off for a high challenge on Faf De Klerk.
But Exeter somehow turned the game on its head after Skinner’s 54th-minute exit, storming to victory through tries by Luke Cowan-Dickie and Stu Townsend, while skipper Joe Simmonds kicked two penalties and two conversions, including a penalty clincher nine minutes from time.
Sale, seeking a first Premiership final appearance for 15 years, will return to Devon next Saturday, yet one more try when they led 19-3 and keeping Exeter at a safe distance would have meant the game going to the north-west instead.
Wing Byron McGuigan, fly-half AJ MacGinty and wing Arron Reed scored tries for Sale, with MacGinty booting two conversions, but ultimately they were undone by Exeter’s astonishing resilience as they were edged out on a day when their England centre Manu Tuilagi made a strong first start for nine months.
But they also suffered a cruel injury blow on the stroke of full-time as influential playmaker MacGinty was carried off.
Exeter showed four changes from the side that fought back from an 18-point deficit to beat Northampton last time out, with wing Alex Cuthbert, centre Ollie Devoto and flanker Dave Ewers among those handed starts.
Tuilagi was Sale’s headline selection, while they also included four of their players in South Africa’s squad to face the British and Irish Lions this summer.
And the visitors made a scintillating start, claiming an opening try after just two minutes.
MacGinty was the architect, with his clever cross-kick almost resulting in a try for Reed, but possession was quickly recycled and moved towards the opposite touchline, and McGuigan touched down.
MacGinty converted, before Simmonds kicked a long-range penalty and Sale lost flanker Cameron Neild to injury, with Ben Curry replacing him.
There was further injury woe for Sale just five minutes later, with hooker Akker Van Der Merwe limping out of the action and Curtis Langdon joining Sharks’ forward effort.
And another worrying moment followed for Sale when Tom Curry went down and grabbed the back of his right leg, but he soon rejoined the action as Sharks looked to regroup.
They kept territorial pressure on Exeter, and a second try arrived in the 22nd minute when MacGinty glided over from close range, and his conversion opened up an 11-point lead.
It was no more than Sale deserved, before Exeter were forced into their first change when flanker Jannes Kirsten went off for a head injury assessment and was replaced by Richard Capstick.
There were more back-row issues for Exeter just before the interval when Ewers was sin-binned.
Ewers made high shoulder-led contact on Sale full-back Simon Hammersley, but referee Karl Dickson opted for a yellow card rather than red following lengthy discussions with television match official Clare Hodnett.
Sale could not make their temporary one-man advantage count before the break, though, leading 14-3 midway through a pulsating contest.
But it took them barely three minutes of the second period to extend their advantage, and MacGinty again played a pivotal role, rolling a kick behind Exeter’s defence and allowing Reed a simple finish.
Exeter were in deep trouble, and matters deteriorated for them when Skinner was shown a red card for a high challenge on De Klerk.
It was now a real test of character for them, but they gave themselves a glimmer of hope when Cowan-Dickie crashed over for a try that Simmonds converted, while full-back Stuart Hogg was taken off and replaced by lock Sean Lonsdale as Chiefs retained eight forwards.
Exeter then claimed a second try, with Townsend going over after Ben Curry was sin-binned, and Simmonds’ conversion made it a two-point game before landing his penalty winner.
Scoring sequence: 0-5 McGuigan try, 0-7 MacGinty con, 3-7 J Simmonds pen, 3-12 MacGinty try, 3-14 MacGinty con, 3-19 Reed try, 8-19 Cowan-Dickie try, 10-19 J Simmonds con, 15-19 Townsend try, 17-19 J Simmonds con, 20-19 J Simmonds pen.
Exeter Chiefs: S Hogg (rep S Lonsdale 60); A Cuthbert, H Slade, O Devoto, T O’Flaherty; J Simmonds (c), J Maunder (rep S Townsend 47); A Hepburn (rep B Moon 47), L Cowan-Dickie (rep J Yeandle 62), H Williams (rep M Street 62), S Skinner, J Hill, D Ewers, J Kirsten (rep R Capstick 28), S Simmonds.
Replacements not used: H Skinner, I Whitten.
Yellow card: D Ewers (34).
Red card: S Skinner (54).
Sale Sharks: S Hammersley; B McGuigan, S James, M Tuilagi (rep R du Preez 57), A Reed; A MacGinty (rep S Hill 79), F de Klerk (rep W Cliff 74); R Harrison (rep B Rodd 47), A van der Merwe (rep C Langdon 12), C Oosthuizen (rep W John 47), C Wiese (rep J Phillips 58), JL du Preez, C Neild (rep B Curry 7), T Curry, D du Preez.
Yellow card: B Curry (65).
Referee: K Dickson.