Morris reaches point of no return

PILKINGTON CUP FINAL: Nine years in the trenches have taken their toll of spirited performer; The popular Sale scrum-half tells Chris Hewett this will be his last big game - probably
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They will converge by the busload on Twickenham today to bid Dewi Morris the fondest of farewells: family, friends and bleary-eyed drinking partners from Crickhowell and Crewe, Wigan and Warrington, old-fashioned Orrell and salubrious Sale. A popular lad, our Dewi; indeed, if popularity could be translated into tries and conversions, there would be no earthly point in Leicester turning up for this afternoon's Pilkington Cup final.

Should Morris leave his favourite stadium with a first winner's medal, it is just possible that his personal battalion of vociferous supporters will give his already successful business career another leg up by sinking a bottle or two of Black Death vodka. It would, however, be asking a bit much of them to drink enough to solve their hero's most pressing professional difficulty; 10 million cases of the stuff would constitute the mother of all hangovers.

"We've got a bit of a problem with Boris Yeltsin at the moment," Morris explained at the end of another long day in which he had just about managed to balance the demands of his job as his company's national sales manager with his more familiar role as Sale's vibrantly enthusiastic scrum-half. "A year ago, we were exporting between eight and 10 million cases of vodka to Russia annually. Then the president slapped a ban on it. No more vodka imports, full stop. We're still selling them gin, but it's not quite the same."

From today onwards, Morris will spend rather more of his time pondering the plusses and minuses of the vodka flow-chart. He has yet to slam the door completely on his playing career - he has two seasons left on his Sale contract - but it looks increasingly likely that he will invoke his get-out clause and call it a day after this last hurrah against the Tigers. "You can go on and on in this game but there comes a time," he said with just a trace of sadness in his voice. "This is probably the end.

"I simply can't do it all again next season, not to the extent I've done it this time. I'm 33, not 23, and while my employers have been good to me throughout my rugby life it's becoming physically impossible to perform both jobs professionally. Anyway, I'm not as fit as I was. I was fairly inactive for 12 months after the 1995 World Cup and it's difficult to get all the way back to peak condition after a lay-off like that."

Happily, Morris will not leave the stage in a state of advanced burn- out, as he did two years ago. He has found his Indian summer every bit as invigorating as he had hoped when he took the plunge and returned to top-flight rugby last August; and with a daughter of seven months to contend with at home, his celebrated zest for life is in full flood once again.

"It's not a case of my body insisting that I retire. Quite honestly, I don't feel anywhere near as tired as I did after the World Cup. God, I was shattered after that. I'd gone round the training track and done the weights that many times, made so many sacrifices in so many different ways, that when we left South Africa I said to myself: 'That's it. All over. Let's go back to life and start living again.' I don't feel that way now.

"In fact, I'd love to stay involved with Sale in some capacity because they're doing things the right way. I'd be lying if I said the financial package had nothing to do with my decision to come out of retirement - of course it did - but I agreed to play because I knew the club was being run professionally and that we'd be fully competitive. That was very important to me; it's no fun being kicked up the arse every Saturday afternoon, no matter how much you're being paid."

Nine years in the trenches have left their mark. Three broken noses, a comprehensively knackered left shoulder joint, problems with both knees, stretched and strained ligaments in his right ankle and, at the start of this season, a busted rib or two courtesy of a big hit at West Hartlepool; that is a heavy toll in anyone's language and although the latter injury gave Morris some unexpected quality time with baby Jessica, the price tag is becoming seriously inflationary. Yet even in last week's ferocious battle royal with Leicester at Heywood Road, sheer enjoyment was the name of the game.

"One of the most rewarding aspects of this season has been working with John Mitchell, whose contribution as director of rugby has been huge. I'm glad I never had to play against him, that's for sure. There is no arrogance about the man - quite the opposite, because any reference to his own achievements has to be dragged from him - but he has brought a hard winning edge to the club and that makes all the effort worthwhile.

"I've always taken the view that rugby games are there to be won. With John in place here, all that old English 'Don't worry, chaps, it's only a game' nonsense has gone for good. We've got the New Zealand attitude now and it's making things happen for us. That's why I'll be around in some shape or form next season - if, of course, John can find a use for me."

Whether Sale's eager embrace of Mitchell's stern All Black virtues will guide them home against Leicester this afternoon is a moot point, but Morris is in no doubt that his side has struck a chord with the wider rugby public. "Without being funny, I think a Sale victory would be good not only for the North-west, where it would help attract new investment, bigger signings and better crowds, but for every rugby-playing area outside Leicester itself. You could go round every club in the land right now, ask them who they want to win and receive the same answer. I don't think we have any enemies out there and that is how it should be.

"Even though Twickenham is not quite the place it was before the rebuild, it is still a magnificent stage to go out on. Mind you, I'll be a bag of nerves before kick-off; I may have been around a fair old time but I still feel physically sick before a big game and it seems to get worse with age. I won't miss that side of rugby one little bit but I have to admit that given the choice, I'd love to be 23 all over again."