Rugby Union: Anything but plain sailing for West

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The Independent Online
Sale 22 West Hartlepool 7 West boarded their bus back to Hartlepool with kitbags stuffed to the zipper with disbelief. How can a team who, only seven days previously, outscored Bath by three tries to two and earned rave notices for their awesome forward display stumble so lamely to defeat against Sale who, on their own admission, were some way below their best?

'I just can't explain it,' said Paul Hodder, West's New Zealand captain, from whom there were no excuses. 'I'm much more disappointed than last week.

Then we didn't expect to win but showed - as we did against Wasps and Leicester - that we can live with the best.

'We came here still pumped up after last Saturday, played well for 10 minutes, thought we had it in the bag, and then went to sleep.'

Hodder refused to be drawn on the contributions of individual players, although there seems little doubt that some of his team had their minds on other things. Foremost among the distracted was West's outstanding No 8 Mick Watson, whose temperamental spat with the Australian coach Barry Taylor has led to speculation about Watson's future at the club and his name being linked with Harlequins and Bath.

Long before the end of a disjointed, eccentrically refereed match, Watson was a peripheral figure and West were unrecognisable from the outfit who had taken Bath to the wire. They began well enough, Tim Stimpson scoring a well-crafted try which Kevan Oliphant converted. Thereafter, the slide towards abject failure gathered an irresistible momentum.

Two points behind at the break, Sale did not allow their visitors a single kick at goal during the second half while missing seven attempts themselves.

A fifth three-try haul of the campaign has lifted Sale to safety, while West teeter on the brink.

Sale: Tries Warr, Vyvyan, Verbickas; Conversions Turner 2; Penalty Turner.

West Hartlepool: Try Stimpson; Conversion Oliphant.

Sale: J Mallinder; S Verbickas, J Baxendell, G Stocks, M Appleson; P Turner, M Warr; P Smith, S Diamond, A Smith, D Baldwin, D Erskine, M Kenrick (capt), N Ashurst, C Vyvyan.

West Hartlepool: T Stimpson; K Whitaker, A Elwine, P Hodder (capt), K Oliphant; J Stabler, S Cook; D Rusby, S Mitchell, M Shelley, J Dixon, K Westgarth, D Mitchell, A Brown, M Watson.

Referee: M Bayliss (Gloucester).