- SALE 16 - 18 EXETER CHIEFS
Gareth Steenson claimed a 18-point haul as he kicked Exeter to victory in their Aviva Premiership clash with Sale on Friday night.
The Exeter fly-half did not falter under the lights at the AJ Bell Stadium as he maintained a 100 per cent record to help claim the fifth win of the campaign for the Chiefs despite a late rally from Sale.
A flurry of yellow cards in the first half dented Sale's hopes of bouncing back from their defeat by Harlequins last weekend, but Danny Cipriani's three penalties and Mark Cueto's late converted try was enough for them to claim a losing bonus point in the 18-16 defeat.
The game started with Sale penalised for pulling down a maul, and when no advantage was gained, referee Wayne Barnes took play back to allow Steenson his first shot at goal.
The Chiefs stand-off did not miss, but Sale were quickly back on level terms when Exeter prop Brett Sturgess was penalised at the scrum, allowing Cipriani to line up a regulation kick.
Sale's forwards showed their intent again as they drove the Chiefs' unstable-looking scrum to pieces against the head to claim another penalty.
With the mist descending, Exeter's pack looked to be losing their way, as the Sharks' tight five continued to do serious damage.
They set the platform for another Cipriani penalty as referee Barnes spotted an offside infringement, allowing the former Melbourne Rebels star to put Sale 6-3 up.
However, the Sharks were dealt a blow in the 20th minute when tighthead Vadim Cobilas was shown a yellow card for repeated infringements at the ruck after a break from the line-out had seen Exeter threaten Sale's line.
It resulted in Steenson lining up his second penalty as the battle of the kickers continued, with the Exeter fly-half soon regaining the lead for his side with a third strike after a maul was hauled to the floor.
Sale's backline then stretched their legs after wing Tom Arscott ran on to a lucky bounce and scythed through the defensive line in a move that involved Johnny Leota and Sam Tuitupou, but Mark Cueto was unable to get to the centre's chip and the ball went dead.
Cipriani missed a chance to level when Exeter were penalised for not releasing and the Chiefs were given another one-man advantage soon after when Sale hooker Tommy Taylor was sent to the sin-bin after a brief melee.
Steenson booted Exeter 12-6 ahead and they tested Sale again when wing Matt Jess broke the line with an angled run.
The Sharks' continued indiscipline cost them dear as they lost lock Kirill Kulemin to the bin three minutes before the half-time whistle for coming straight over the top of a ruck and taking out scrum-half Dave Lewis.
Steenson maintained his 100 per cent record to put the Chiefs 15-6 up at the break as Exeter finished the half on a high and Sale went in with just 13 men.
The Chiefs looked to make their two-man advantage pay at the start of the second half but Dean Mumm dropped an easy pass and some superb defence from Sale at a five-metre line-out maul killed their chances, with Taylor returning to bolster their forwards.
In fact it was Sale who had their tails up and they almost crossed for the first try when full-back Rob Miller broke in midfield, only for the ball to be fumbled by Cueto inches from the line, after they had returned to full strength with David Seymour on for Kulemin.
A series of scrum penalties and aerial ping pong followed but it was Sale who looked the more dangerous when the ball came back down from orbit with a couple of breaks, but some resolute Exeter defending and the odd fumble saw their attacks fizzle out.
Cipriani fired a penalty six minutes before the final whistle which Steenson matched at the other end, before the game finished with a flourish as Cueto crossed for a late try in the corner after some good hands.
Cipriani added the conversion, as Sale salvaged a losing bonus point.
– Rob Baxter, Head Coach, Exeter Chiefs
It was a very important away win in the Premiership for us.
We showed a lot of good qualities today.
I enjoy watching us when we get on the front foot but it's also satisfying to watch the boys stand and fight. The fixture could have slipped away from us like last year but we handled it a lot better.
Ultimately the decisive factor was that we held our discipline.
It was a bit of a kicking battle and we shaded the scoreline and we probably shaded that battle.