Leicester look to punish Sale's zealotry

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The Independent Online
Fran Cotton and Cliff Brittle willing, English club rugby's final piece of unfinished business will this afternoon be decided by boots rather than suits, power running as opposed to power politics. Almost for the first time in a season befuddled and betrayed by talking heads, actions have an outside chance of speaking louder than words. Who knows? It could be the start of a new trend.

Even so, the most influential figure in what promises to be a ferocious Pilkington Cup final between Leicester and Sale is unlikely to be a player at all. Brian Campsall, the international referee from Yorkshire, will be under extreme pressure from both sides - not to mention the 75,000 spectators sardined into Twickenham - to give today's showpiece a chance to breathe.

Unfortunately, Campsall cannot expect to please everyone, as Ed Morrison, his colleague on the England Test panel, discovered to his cost in last weekend's ruthless league set-to between the two clubs at Heywood Road. The modern breed of professional player regards the law as an ass and spends the lion's share of his time trying to kick it. And who was forced to soak up the barbs and accusations as the dust settled on a wild and unruly encounter? You guessed it. The referee.

Bob Dwyer, the Leicester coach, confidently expects today's match to be played out on a far broader canvas than the one in evidence seven days ago and Campsall, for one, would be happy to see that prediction proved correct.

According to John Mitchell, however, the final will differ little from the league confrontation. Sale's severe and unsparing director of rugby, who plays at No 8 today in the absence of the injured Charlie Vyvyan, anticipates a merciless scrap for the loose ball and believes Campsall's interpretation of the ruck laws will be central to the outcome.

"We will go out there in search of quick ruck possession, just as we did last Saturday, but one of Leicester's key attributes is their ability to slow opposition ball and they are repeatedly allowed to get away with it," the former All Black captain from Waikato said. "To my mind, it's one of the major problems facing English rugby. You need quick ball if the game is going to develop and the referees have to play their part in making it happen."

If Mitchell gets his way in the loose and the Sale line-out holds up for the full 80 in the absence of another long-term injury victim, John Fowler, the northerners have more than a puncher's chance of landing a first knock-out title and denying Leicester their fifth.

Until their slippage in form last month, the Tigers' defence was regarded as the most parsimonious in the English game, but Sale's intrepid back line, inspired by Jos Baxendell's conjuring tricks in midfield and Jim Mallinder's running from full-back, created enough havoc last week to suggest that Leicester have yet to plug those recently opened holes.

Mitchell, described by the Sale chief executive, Howard Thomas, as "the most focused individual I've ever encountered", is in no doubt that his exciting outside runners can deliver once again, but he has been forced to fight a week-long battle against over-enthusiasm bordering on zealotry. "It's important to keep everyone's feet firmly on the ground, but it's not easy because the whole side is so up for this, including me," he admitted. "Victory at Twickenham in my first season here would be so special."

The worry for Mitchell is that his opponents finally rediscovered some poise and equilibrium last weekend in reeling in a 17-point deficit and escaping from Cheshire with a 20-20 draw, not to mention the Heineken Cup place on which Sale had set their hearts. Given the importance of the occasion and the hostility of the home crowd, it was an outstanding effort by the Midlanders and a startling confirmation of Martin Johnson's captaincy credentials in advance of the Lions tour.

Johnson's resourcefulness, Joel Stransky's big-game temperament and the return of the brilliant Will Greenwood at inside centre all point to a Leicester triumph, perhaps by a double figure margin. But Twickenham has done them few favours in recent seasons and the Tigers may yet require another all- embracing cameo appearance from Dean Richards to extract the wind from the Sale.


at Twickenham

O N Malone 15 J Mallinder (capt)

N C Joiner 14 D Rees

M W Greenwood 13 A Hadley

L S Potter 12 J Baxendell

K L Lloyd 11 T Beim

J J Stransky 10 S Mannix

I A Healey 9 D Morris

A G Rowntree 1 P Winstanley

B R Cockerill 2 S Diamond

C D Garforth 3 A Smith

D M Johnson (capt) 4 D Erskine

E M Poole 5 D Baldwin

F J Wells 6 N Ashurst

G E Miller 8 J Mitchell

H N Back 7 D O'Grady

Referee: B Campsall (Yorkshire). Kick-off: 3.0 (Sky Sport: 2.0).