Manu Tuilagi made a try-scoring return to Welford Road as Sale Sharks strengthened their Gallagher Premiership play-off push by beating Leicester 40-31.
The England centre left Leicester in July after rejecting a 25 per cent pay cut, and he bit the Tigers with a first-half touchdown to help Sale reclaim second place behind runaway league leaders Exeter.
It was a trademark Tuilagi score, illustrating enviable power and strength as Leicester defenders were left scattered.
The Tuilagi try highlighted a dominant first 50 minutes by Sale, with fly-half AJ MacGinty and captain Jono Ross also claiming touchdowns, while MacGinty kicked three conversions and a penalty and Faf De Klerk dropped a goal.
Tuilagi was replaced midway through the second period just after a De Klerk penalty, and despite Leicester having their moments – Hanro Liebenberg, Jake Kerr and Freddie Steward scored tries and George Ford kicked 16 points – they were ultimately eclipsed.
Sale wing Denny Solomona claimed a bonus-point try 17 minutes from time, with MacGinty’s conversion giving him a 19-point haul as the Sharks prevailed.
The only downbeat note on a dominant afternoon for Sale was their England flanker Tom Curry going off on the stroke of half-time and not returning after failing a head injury assessment.
An entertaining battle at Welford Road comes to a close and it's @SaleSharksRugby who come out on top 🏉@LeicesterTigers fought back superbly but the BP win takes Steve Diamond's men back up to second place in the #GallagherPrem 🙌
— Premiership Rugby (@premrugby) September 5, 2020
Leicester, 26 points below Sale in the league before kick-off, made a strong start and were almost ahead after four minutes when wing Nemani Nadolo caught Ford’s clever cross-kick, but he lost possession with the line beckoning.
The scare kick-started Sale, and they scored from their first attack when De Klerk landed a smart drop-goal from 30 metres.
Although a Ford penalty briefly tied things up, Sale powered back in front via the direct approach of their forwards before enough space was worked for MacGinty to glide over and convert his own try.
Leicester lock Tomas Lavanini was fortunate to escape a yellow card following a dangerous challenge on Sale hooker Akker Van Der Merwe after Ford kicked a second penalty, and Sale were starting to find impressive rhythm.
The Tigers lost flanker Luke Wallace, who went off when he was hurt attempting a tackle on Curry, and the Sharks immediately moved further ahead.
De Klerk’s quick thinking from the base of a scrum saw him fire a pass to Tuilagi, who claimed a first try for his new club by powering through Ford’s challenge.
MacGinty converted, then he exchanged penalties with Ford as Sale, who saw Curry go off in the 40th minute, took a 20-9 advantage into half-time.
Sale’s third try arrived just six minutes after the restart, and it was a superb team effort, with backs and forwards combining brilliantly through slick handling and support play.
Leicester could not cope in the face of wave after attacking wave, and Ross applied the finishing touch before MacGinty’s conversion opened up an 18-point lead.
The Tigers recovered their poise, though, and they cut the deficit when Liebenberg charged down De Klerk’s clearance, before Ford converted and then kicked his fourth penalty.
Sale’s lead had been reduced from 18 points to eight in just three minutes, but De Klerk calmed things down when he kicked a 48-metre penalty.
And the Sharks had done enough, although Kerr and Steward touched down following Solomona’s score as Tigers admirably chased a losing bonus point that was denied them by MacGinty’s late penalty.