|Exeter: (3) 20|
|Tries: Cowan-Dickie, Townsend Cons: J Simmonds 2 Pens: J Simmonds 2|
|Sale: (14) 19|
|Tries: McGuigan, MacGinty, Reed Cons: MacGinty 2|
Exeter Chiefs produced a superb comeback with 14 men to beat Sale and secure a home Premiership play-off semi-final against the Sharks.
Byron McGuigan’s try after 90 seconds and one from AJ MacGinty deservedly put an impressive Sale ahead at half-time.
Arron Reed’s 42nd-minute try gave Sale more hope as Exeter had Sam Skinner sent off with 26 minutes left.
Luke Cowan-Dickie and Stu Townsend scored tries for Exeter soon after before Joe Simmonds’ penalty sealed it.
The result means Exeter finish second in the Premiership and Sale will come back to Sandy Park next Saturday to face them in the semi-finals – the Sharks’ first play-off match since they won their only Premiership title in 2006.
Exeter’s outside hopes of topping the table were ended before kick-off when Bristol were awarded four points after their game with London Irish was called off because of positive Covid-19 tests at the Exiles.
An incredible game in which Sale knew they had to score four tries and keep Exeter out started with the Sharks on the front foot.
A wonderful chipped kick by MacGinty set Reed free on the left, and a few phases later MacGinty’s floated pass sent McGuigan over in the opposite corner as they went ahead before some of the crowd had taken their seats.
Joe Simmonds kicked a penalty for Exeter in an action-packed opening 10 minutes that saw Sale lose flanker Cameron Neild and South Africa hooker Akker van der Merwe to injury.
The Sharks deservedly doubled their tally midway through the half as MacGinty’s deft sidestep saw him go in under the posts from five metres as Exeter, usually so ruthless from positions close to their opponents’ try-line, repeatedly gave away penalties within sight of a score thanks to Sale’s excellent defence.
There was controversy seven minutes from the break as Exeter flanker Dave Ewers was not sent off for a shoulder hit on Simon Hammersley’s head. Referee Karl Dickson felt Hammersley was spinning as Ewers made contact and that was enough to downgrade what looked a certain red card to a yellow.
Red card spurs Chiefs on
Any hopes that Exeter could repeat their comeback from last week when they recovered from an 18-0 half-time deficit to beat Northampton, looked to dashed two minutes into the second half as the influential MacGinty’s deft kick through the Chiefs line saw Reed gather and dive over in the left corner as they went 19-3 ahead.
It got worse soon after when Scotland lock Skinner was red-carded for a hit on South Africa scrum-half Faf de Klerk’s head with his shoulder – a decision which will in all likelihood mean a ban that will end any involvement in the post-season and possibly Scotland’s summer Tests.
But the red card seemed to galvanise Exeter – Cowan-Dickie and impressive replacement scrum-half Townsend both went in from close range after multiple phases on the Sale line within five minutes of one another.
With the limited Sandy Park crowd of 3,327 spurring their side on Simmonds slotted his second penalty from 43 metres with 10 minutes to go to seal the victory as the hosts dominated the closing moments.
And Sale were dealt a further blow in the final seconds as MacGinty, excellent for much of the game, was stretchered off with what looked like a serious knee injury.
Exeter director of rugby Rob Baxter told BBC Sport:
“It’s hard for me to explain really. Weirdly we were a team that was transformed by a red card.
“It just shows you that when we have nowhere to go and no avenue to go and we have to stand and fight we’re a good side.
“I’m kind of hoping that we’ve been in a bit of a phoney war until now because whatever’s happened over the past two or three weeks there’s always been another game.
“There’s nothing else now, this is it, if we don’t want to stand and fight from minute one next week the season’s gone, and I genuinely do think that will change us.”
Sale director of rugby Alex Sanderson told BBC Sport:
“There are loads of things to take from it in a positive sense.
“I just felt that we blew it today, I felt like we had it there for 50 minutes and then we blew it.
“Fair game to Exeter, they’re a very resilient and well-coached side, they know what works for them and they’re efficient at doing it.
“But we’ll see if its going to be enough two weeks on the trot.”
Exeter: Hogg; Cuthbert, Slade, Devoto, O’Flaherty; J Simmonds (capt), J Maunder; Hepburn, Cowan-Dickie, Williams, S Skinner, J Hill, Ewers, Kirsten, S Simmonds
Replacements: Yeandle, Moon, Street, Lonsdale, Capstick, Townsend, H Skinner, Whitten
Sale: Hammersley; McGuigan, S James, Tuilagi, Reed; MacGinty, de Klerk; Harrison, van der Merwe, Oosthuizen, Wiese, J-L du Preez, Neild, T Curry (capt), D du Preez
Replacements: Langdon, Rodd, John, Phillips, B Curry, Cliff, R du Preez, S Hill
Referee: Karl Dickson