SALE Sharks director of rugby Alex Sanderson insists his side will go from ‘strength to strength’ after missing out on a place in the Gallagher Premiership final.

The Sharks went down 40-30 to Exeter Chiefs in the play-off as they attempted to reach a first Twickenham showpiece since 2006.

While Sanderson admitted his side lost the game in the opening 20 minutes – a period where they conceded 12 points and Manu Tuilagi was sin-binned – he said the foundations have been laid to build-on moving forward.

“The game was lost in the first 20 minutes,” Sale rugby director Alex Sanderson said. “When the hangover subsides and we step back, we will be very happy with how far we’ve come.

“We had five lads out there aged 20 or younger and they’ve dominated. That is exciting.

"We are only going to go from strength to strength, and this will not be the last time we are here. It has been about laying a really solid base, a strong foundation to improve and build on, and we’ve done that, looking back right now.”

Exeter scored two tries while centre Tuilagi was off the field following a fifth-minute yellow card after a swinging arm hit Chiefs flanker Richard Capstick, who went off and did not return.

Hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie and wing Tom O’Flaherty struck after Tuilagi left the action, and Chiefs maintained the upper hand through full-back Jack Nowell’s two touchdowns on his comeback after six weeks out injured and an Alex Cuthbert score, plus three conversions and three penalties from skipper Joe Simmonds.

Sale had their moments, notably centre Rohan Janse Van Rensburg’s try double, while fly-half Robert Du Preez kicked 13 points, before number eight Dan Du Preez scored a late try that Kieran Wilkinson converted.

Meanwhile, Tuilagi has suffered a fresh injury setback that has forced him to withdraw from England’s training squad for next month’s Tests against the USA and Canada.

Tuilagi has played three matches for Sale since recovering from an Achilles problem sustained in September but picked up a knock during Saturday’s defeat.

After an assessment by the Sharks, the 30-year-old has been pulled out of Eddie Jones’ 36-strong squad, who are preparing for Sunday’s ‘A’ international against Scotland.

Tuilagi hasn’t played for England since the Six Nations clash against Wales in March 2020.