Martin Johnson watched on as Sale edged a ferocious encounter against Guinness Premiership leaders London Irish thanks to a try created and scored by three players hoping to catch the eye of the England manager.
Irish led 8-6 at the break at a bitterly cold Edgeley Park but excellent work from discarded fly-half Charlie Hodgson and replacement Mathew Tait allowed forgotten wing Mark Cueto to scamper clear in the 57th minute. It was another reminder to Johnson and his coaching team of Cueto's quality, his fourth try in his last three games continuing a recent renaissance after his desperate struggle for form and fitness in the aftermath of the 2007 World Cup.
Hodgson also put himself in the frame for an international recall with the Six Nations on the horizon after helping secure arguably Sale's finest victory of the season. Cueto and Irish replacement David Paice were sinbinned for their part in a melee which erupted as Sale celebrated the try, but for Irish there was no way back and a losing bonus point was their only consolation.
The Exiles arrived in Stockport having regained top spot in the Premiership after a crushing 48-8 victory over struggling Newcastle last weekend. They were also seeking a fifth successive victory against Sale, but Philippe Saint-Andre's men dug deep to record a win that enhances their title credentials.
Irish's influential full-back Peter Hewat missed a routine penalty in the second minute and Sale centre Luke McAlister also missed from distance moments later. In the sixth minute, Sale's charismatic French forward Sebastien Chabal tackled Irish wing Topsy Ojo into touch, right in front of the visitors' bench.
Words were exchanged between Chabal and members of the Irish replacements and coaching staff, resulting in the Frenchman angrily confronting a member of the visiting contingent. The unsightly incident set the tone for the encounter but was indicative of the desire on display.
A penalty from Hodgson got Sale off the mark in the eighth minute and after Hewat skewed his second penalty wide, Irish escaped when Steffon Armitage's cynical late tackle on Hodgson went unpunished. Tryscoring opportunities were at a premium throughout the opening period and Chris Bell narrowly failed to ground Dwayne Peel's teasing grubber kick midway through the half.
But, on the half-hour mark, Irish claimed a delightful try as Shane Geraghty twice helped to orchestrate a bewildering move which saw Seilala Mapusua and Hewat send Ojo over the line in the right corner.
Hewat's conversion attempt hit the post and and Hodgson missed another penalty before landing a drop goal which put his side 6-5 ahead. However, Hewat landed a penalty in the 35th minute to send the visitors in with an 8-6 advantage.
Hodgson landed another penalty in the 49th minute and shortly before the hour mark came Cueto's try which ultimately sealed victory. Hodgson's conversion attempt struck a post and both sides were forced to play with 14 men as Cueto and Paice were sent to the sin bin.
Geraghty missed a penalty shortly after the hour mark and, despite a period of sustained late pressure, Irish could find no way back as Sale held on for a hard-earned success.
Sale boss Saint-Andre backed Cueto for an international recall after his match-winning performance. "Jonno was sat next to me so you'll have to ask him but Cueto is back to his best and he scored a try again," said Saint-Andre. "He has struggled with injuries for 18 months but in the past three months he's been free from injury and he's looked sharp, quick and strong.
"It's the best he's been in a long time - even during the World Cup he struggled with injury - but he's had a good pre-season and you can see in training how confident he is right now. He'll beat people one on one and when you're on the wing, you want this. He finished well for his try tonight. It was a big win, it keeps us in position to finish in the top four and it sets up nicely for Munster away in the Heineken Cup next week."
Irish coach Toby Booth said, "Obviously we are disappointed with the result because I thought we created quite a lot of chances. But when you don't take those opportunities you get punished. We are always aiming to improve and we will aim to learn lessons from tonight's game."
Sale: Cueto; Bell, Tuilagi, McAlister, Doherty; Hodgson, Peel; Faure, M Jones, Roberts, Chabal, Schofield, C Jones, Briggs, Fernandez Lobbe.
Replacements: M Tait for Tuilagi (50), Wigglesworth for Peel (77), Sheridan for Faure (59), Abraham for M Jones (41), Cockbain for Schofield (55). Not Used: Turner, McLeod.
Sin Bin: Cueto (58).
London Irish: Hewat; Ojo, Seveali'i, Mapusua, Homer; Geraghty, Hodgson; Dermody, Coetzee, Lea'aetoa, Hudson, Casey, Danaher, S. Armitage, Hala'ufia, Corbisiero.
Replacements: Catt for Seveali'i (71), Corbisiero for Lea'aetoa (53), Roche for Hudson (53), Thorpe for Danaher (70), Johnson for Corbisiero (60). Not Used: Paice, Lalanne.
Sin Bin: Paice (58).
Ref: Andrew Small (RFU).