LONDON Irish’s hopes of avoiding an immediate return to the Greene King IPA Championship suffered a potentially fatal blow as they were beaten 13-9 in a dreary affair at Madejski Stadium, writes Richard Ashton.

On a day when relegation rivals Worcester Warriors stunned table-toppers Exeter, Nick Kennedy’s men endured a 13th consecutive Aviva Premiership defeat which leaves them 12 points adrift at the foot of the table with only eight matches left to play.

It was the visitors who dominated from the outset, an early penalty from influential South African scrum half Faf de Klerk putting Sale 3-0 in front during a forgettable opening 20 minutes.

Sale dominated both possession and territory for the opening half hour, having more than 75 per cent of both the ball and field position as Irish hung on grimly in defence.

Things got worse for Exiles when fly half Theo Brophy Clews had to be taken off with a concussion – the January player of the month who had been man-of-the-match in two of his four previous outings replaced by Tommy Bell. He slotted in at full back, with New Zealander James Marshall switching to stand-off.

Irish somehow repelled the visitors until the 30th minute, but the pressure finally told as No. 8 Josh Strauss picked up from the base of a five-metre scrum and brushed aside Piet van Zyl before touching down. De Klerk made no mistake with a simple conversion to the right of the uprights and Steve Diamond’s top-six chasing side had a 10-point advantage.

Exiles rallied, however, and with almost their first attacking threat, the cut the deficit. A series of powerful drives around the fringes – double World Cup-winning prop Ben Franks at the forefront – earned them a penalty, and Bell knocked over the chance to make it 10-3.

It was Sale who closed out the half stronger, though, earning a couple of scrums near the Irish line which the hosts did well to defend, ensuring they entered the break with only a seven-point deficit despite being under the cosh for the vast majority of the 40 minutes.

With the wind at their backs and with the drizzle still falling, Exiles needed to make a fast start to the second half, but a litany of handling errors, coupled with some poor kicking and issues at the set-piece, meant they were never truly able to get a foothold back into the game.

Sale thought they had extended their lead when a clever De Klerk chip was chased down by wing Josh Charnley, only for the TMO to rule he had knocked on when diving on the ball over the tryline.

Irish went back up the other end, and their resilience received a boost when Bell landed a second kick, the visitors penalised for crossing some 30 metres out.

Yet as has happened so often this season, Irish shot themselves by giving away a penalty of their own shortly after, a high tackle on De Klerk allowing the stand-out player the chance to knock over another penalty and make it 13-6.

Sale continued to press and Charnley had a second try disallowed, this time the former rugby league star just being nudged into touch before he grounded the ball.

Remarkably the away side had a third potential score knocked off shortly after when Josh Beaumont charged down a Marshall clearance behind his own line, Ben Curry falling on the ball but again denied due to a knock on.

With these lives having been used up, the hosts rallied and a wonderful kick by Marshall put Sale under pressure on their own line-out. Exiles managed to win the ball, and following a wave of attacks, Sharks hooker Marc Jones came in from the side at a ruck, giving Irish a penalty five metres from their opponents line with eight minutes remaining. Jones was sin-binned for his troubles.

However, rather than going to the corner, Exiles elected to take the points – which Bell duly did – but despite their man advantage, they failed to look like scoring the try which would have secured a victory against the run of play, Sale holding their nerve to leave with four points.

While Irish picked up yet another losing home bonus-point – their fifth in seven games this season – it proved of little consolation, particularly in light of Worcester’s stunning victory.

Indeed, if Exiles are to give themselves hope of a possible great escape, they will need to win their next two matches – at third-bottom Northampton next Saturday (3pm) and the following Sunday at home to Warriors – before trying to salvage something from a testing last six matches of the campaign.

London Irish: Marshall, Cokanasiga, Fowlie, McLean, Lewington, Brophy Clews (Bell, 28), van Zyl (Steele, 52), Franks (Elrington, 60), Paice (Fainga’a 62, 76), Hoskins (Du Plessis, 60), van der Merwe (c), Paulo, Botha, Northcote-Green, Treviranus (Cowan, 67)

Sale Sharks: Haley, Odogwu, Addison, L. James (Jennings, 60), Charnley, S. James, De Klerk (Cliff, 76), Harrison, Webber (Jones, 60), John (Aulika, 60), Evans (Nott, 67), Beaumont, Ross (c) (Neild, 62), Curry, Strauss (Ross, 70)

Referee: Craig Maxwell-Keys

Attendance: 4,497