London Irish (18) 39
Tries: Lamb, Joseph 2, Stowers Cons: Lamb 2 Pens: Lamb 4 Drop-goals: Lamb Lamb
Sale (6) 26
Tries: Tuilagi, Cohen Cons: MacLeod 2 Pens: MacLeod 4
Ryan Lamb celebrates his try
London Irish returned to the top of the Premiership table after surviving a stunning Sale fightback to grab a thrilling last-gasp bonus point win.
The visitors trailed by 20 points with just 25 minutes to play but tries by Anitelea Tuilagi and Ben Cohen and four Nick MacLeod kicks drew them level.
Two Ryan Lamb penalties settled home nerves and Jonathon Joseph intercepted to go over and secure the extra point.
Lamb had earlier scored 24 points to help build a 26-6 lead.
But it was Sale who started the brighter and they twice led early on thanks to MacLeod penalties.
Lamb replied on both occasions and with the scores level at 6-6 the visitors began to show the form that had seen them win five out of the six league games heading into this match.
And the excellent Lamb then went over for the opening try, when he spotted the Sale defence at full stretch down the left and jinked his way past two forwards.
Lamb added the conversion and Joseph scored Irish's second try with a superb individual score two minutes before the interval.
The England Under-18 international used the presence of Chris Hala'ufia outside him to create doubt in the defence and he weaved his way over the line.
Lamb then added a drop-goal to nudge Irish 21-6 ahead and a controversial try by George Stowers - with Sale appealing for a forward pass against Daniel Bowden - seemingly put the game out of the reach of the visitors at 26-6 with just over a quarter of the match to play.
But Exiles head coach Toby Booth began to make changes with a tough fixture list looming and Sale hit back in style.
Their fightback began when Tuilagi touched down in the 58th-minute after smart hands from Karena Wihongi and Cohen.
Cohen then added a second try following some great work by Neil Briggs and some faultless kicking from fly-half Nick MacLeod - who added 16 points in total - drew the visitors level.
But with the scores tied at 26 apiece, Lamb showed great composure to slot two penalties in the final 10 minutes.
And Joseph intercepted a Chris Jones pass deep into injury-time to score the crucial bonus-point fourth try.
London Irish head coach Toby Booth:
"If you look at the changes I made and when I made them, in addition to not having the ball, it looks as though we took our foot off the pedal.
"In relation to game control, I'm to blame. That's probably a learning point for me. At this stage of the season with international breaks and the LV= Cup coming, you have to plan your squad accordingly.
"I try to be as proactive as I can but I got that wrong today, which is a learning curve for me.
"But we're in the entertainment business! I'm delighted - five points at home is just what the doctor ordered, though I don't know if the doctor ordered the middle 20 minutes of the second half.
"We couldn't get the ball back and you have to credit Sale for that. Ryan Lamb and Jonathan Joseph in particular played well, but we'll learn from this."
Sale head coach Mike Brewer said:
"We wanted to play a physical game against Irish, taking them on.
"Our game strategy in the first 10 minutes was good. But our kicking was poor and they got a rocket at half-time. In the second half we did play how we set out and put them under pressure.
"Irish were the better team on the day but they took their foot off the pedal when they were well ahead.
"The mayhem at the end dropped us the point. We came down here to win the game and the players took that literally given what happened at the end.
"Coming to the Madejski is like going to Welford Road - you get an opportunity to win the game you have a crack at it. I'd criticise the execution of it but not the mindset which was to come here and win the game."
London Irish: Homer; Ojo, Mapusua, Bowden, Joseph; Lamb, Hodgson; Dermody, Paice, Corbisiero, Kennedy, Casey, Roche, Hala'ufia, Stevenson.
Replacements: Malone for Homer (26), Seveali'i for Mapusua (52), Rautenbach for Dermody (50), Buckland for Paice (57), Murphy for Corbisiero (57), Garvey for Roche (57), S. Armitage for Stevenson (65).
Not Used: Allinson.
Sale: Williams; Brady, Bell, Tuilagi, Cohen; MacLeod, Cliff; Croall, Briggs, Wihongi, Lewaravu, Rouse, Fearns, Seymour, Ormsby.
Replacements: Miller for Tuilagi (57), Imiolek for Croall (40), Thomas for Wihongi (68), C. Jones for Lewaravu (57), Brightwell for Fearns (40), M. Jones for Seymour (40), Koyamaibole for Ormsby (40).
Not Used: Leck.
Ref: Martin Fox (RFU).