Rugby Union: Episode of men behaving blokishly

Geoffrey Nicholson says that the huffing and puffing produced little to remember
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The Independent Online
FOR A SIDE as competitive as Sale, rugby's bristling flagship in the North-west, the last exchange of salvoes before the summer truce has been hard to take. Not flashily equipped but yielding to nobody in basic fire-power, Sale can only be affronted to have the prizes of their buccaneering season snatched away in the final eight days. And that by Leicester, certainly a tight ship,and formidably armed, but pretty ponderous.

Their draw with Leicester last weekend had cost them the well-rewarded adventure of playing in Europe. And although this match offered no reprieve - as yet there's no Cup-Winners' Cup in rugby - it was galling to cede the honour and revenge. Nor was it an attractive match, though the closeness of the scores built up the excitement and very nearly brought Sale victory in the last few minutes.

On a May afternoon that might have stood in for any winter Saturday - the wind gusting bleakly from the south-west and grey clouds seeming to graze the top of the stands and regularly spitting drizzle - Twickenham was filled to its 75,000 capacity.

In fact, it had been sold out since February, when the prospect of warm spring rugby must have seemed irresistible. But with only 15,000 seats reserved for each of the finalists, that still meant 45,000 places taken up by semi-detached rugby followers, a triumph for optimism over experience. If the Pilkington Cup is to go on filling the stadium, these are the floating voters who have to be won over.

To bind the faithful closer, it will not be enough to have some one prancing round the touchline as Willie Whistle before the match, and three inaudibly introduced place-kickers trying and failing to land goals for pounds 6,000. There's the new professionalism for you.

More to their taste, though, would have been the pace and fierce commitment of the opening clashes in which either side could have scored but for the frenetically clutching hands and straining bodies of the defenders. Yet it was Leicester, given first advantage of the wind, who came back again and again, forcing Sale into errors which brought Joel Stransky the opening penalty for Leicester at his third attempt.

It was all pretty wild and woolly, but then in much of English rugby this season, pressure has been used to force punishable mistakes on the opposition rather than create openings for oneself.

It has to be said that there was a bit more clarity of purpose in Sale's attacks, which began to mount in the second quarter. Dewi Morris behind the pack, John Mitchell flailing round into the open at No8, and Jim Mallinder on the stampede from full-back, are nothing if not direct.

All of which sadly didn't mean that Sale, having worked into a threatening position, weren't capable of blowing it with a blind pass into touch. There seemed little reason for anything to change, and for the game to open up, when Stransky having kicked a second penalty, Simon Mannix pulled three points back on half-time after Leicester had killed a ruck. Leicester, surely not? Yes, I'm afraid so.

The rituals seemed even more set when Stransky restored Leicester's lead with his third penalty. It was all men behaving blokishly and with remarkably little constructive skill. There were still only six points in it, which brought a flush of excitement whenever Sale broke briefly clear. But from the moment when Dean Richards loomed up from the replacement bench 27 minutes into the second half, Leicester's parsimonious lead seemed sure to carry them through, and so it proved.