Pitbull's tail between his legs

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The Independent Online
Brian Moore seldom gets much of a sympathy vote - rumour has it that Lord Longford declined to join the former England hooker's fan club on the grounds that he had a reputation to protect - so it was no surprise that the Pitbull's dismissal after an hour of Richmond's knife-edge Pilkington Cup tie at Sale reduced the home supporters to tears of joy. As one wit put it: "The unpardonable has just been committed by the unspeakable."

Yet at the risk of annoying the entire populations of Paris, Edinburgh, the Rugby Football Union heads at Twickenham and a hundred other traditional pockets of anti-Pitbull unrest, it should be said that both player and club received the rough end of the pineapple on Saturday. Sale's 34-30 victory owed far more to Chris White, the Somerset referee, than to anyone wearing a blue and white shirt.

The Second Division side were sitting pretty at 30-21 when Moore received summary justice for hobnailing his way up the back of Dave Baldwin, the Sale second row, at a maul deliberately collapsed by the home forwards. It was, unquestionably, the defining moment of a desperately tight affair. Richmond's enforced pack reshuffle saw Ben Clarke move from the blind- side flank to lock, and when David Rees zipped over from fully 40 metres to bring Sale back into range six minutes from time, that lack of loose forward cover was largely to blame.

"When the sending-off occurred, you could sense our heads going up," said Simon Mannix, the Sale outside-half who steered his side into today's sixth-round draw with 19 points from the boot and a major assist in a first-half penalty try. "The effect on the guys was very noticable. It galvanized us." All fine and dandy, then. One flash of indiscipline costs the player a likely 60-day ban and his side their shot at Cup glory.

Except that Moore's tap-dance routine was anything but a hanging offence. Brainless, yes - White had just warned Paul Smith, the Sale prop, for a far more calculated off-the-ball assault on Paul Carr and was clearly fearful of the pot boiling over in the final quarter - but malicious? Dangerous? Come off it. As a thoroughly depressed Moore said afterwards: "When I think of some of the things I've had done to me on a rugby pitch, this simply doesn't rate. In the wider scheme of things I don't think the offence warranted a dismissal at all, let alone a two-month ban."

Well,he would say that, wouldn't he? But listen to the New Zealander John Mitchell, a former Waikato and All Black captain who now coaches Sale. With one eyebrow raised to the heavens and a half-smile spreading across his face, he put the incident into stark perspective by saying: "I've seen far worse. Where I come from, we accept that if a player is deliberately killing the ball he should be rucked away. Over here, there is still so much body spillage at the tackles and nothing is done about it."

And that is precisely the point. While English officials categorically refuse to countenance the use of the boot in breakdown situations, New Zealand and South Africa have developed fast, dynamic and spectacularly successful styles of rugby on the back of fierce, merciless rucking. It would be safer to lay down in the fast lane of the M1 than lay on the ball in Dunedin or Port Elizabeth, and when the Lions take on the Springboks this summer they will kill rucks at their peril.

For all Richmond's misfortune - the 78th-minute penalty goal from Mannix that finally condemned them to defeat was the result of another dubious refereeing decision after a brief bout of handbag-swinging between the rival wings Jim Fallon and Adrian Hadley - they left Cheshire secure in the knowledge that First Division rugby holds no terrors. "They aren't a Second Division side, that's for sure," said Mitchell, who was perfectly happy to admit that his own team had "got out of jail".

Both Clarke, a mighty presence from start to finish, and Scott Quinnell looked close to Test form against a Sale back row who possessed their own class act in the shape of Dave Erskine, the No 8 from Ulster. There were good things, too, from Andy Moore at scrum-half and Allan Bateman in the centre. Moore claimed the opening try as early as the third minute by intercepting a ponderous pass from Dewi Morris, and he generally kept the Sale fringe defence on its toes.

With Simon Mason, the Irish international full-back, taking advantage of early Sale errors, which came in all shapes and sizes, Richmond were 19-3 ahead by the 23rd minute. Mannix lured his opposite number, Adrian Boyd, into high tackle near the line and won a penalty try for his pains, yet within nine minutes of the restart the visitors were in clear blue water once more, Mason reaching over after superb pressure passes from Boyd and Mike Hutton.

Even when Erskine made big ground from a quick penalty tap and enabled the powerful Chris Yates to cut the deficit with a try to the right of the posts, Richmond appeared to have done enough. But Moore's dismissal tipped the balance decisively and Mannix, admirably cool under the dead weight of expectation, converted Rees's twinkling try before slotting two fine penalties to complete the revival.

Not that Sale could take too much from the game, apart from lavish helpings of relief. "We've got Bath up here next weekend and if we play like that we'll get blown away," Mitchell said.

"Professionalism is forcing the players to change their habits for the better but we're still 18 months away from the fitness levels I want to see. And we need to find a harder edge if we're going to compete with the best clubs." Funnily enough, Brian Moore used to be of the same opinion.

Sale: Tries Penalty try, Yates, Rees; Conversions Mannix 2; Penalties Mannix 5. Richmond: Tries A Moore, Mason; Conversion Mason; Penalties Mason 6.

Sale: T Beim; C Yates, J Baxendell, J Devereux, (D Rees, 68), A Hadley; S Mannix, D Morris; P Smith, S Diamond (capt), A Smith, D Baldwin, J Fowler, N Ashurst, D Erskine, A Morris (D O'Grady, 74).

Richmond: S Mason; J Fallon, A Bateman, M Hutton, S Brown; A Boyd, A Moore; C Clark, B Moore, D Crompton, P Carr (A Cuthbert, 63), R West, B Clarke (capt), S Quinnell, A Vander.

Referee: C White (Somerset).