Rugby Union: Final act of desperation

Leicester 9 Sale 3
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"They say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself." So said Andy Warhol during a break from painting soup tins, and even though rugby failed miserably to force itself on the great man's sporting conciousness - as far as we can tell, he neither knew nor cared about tight-head props or double dummy scissors moves - that memorable snippet of homespun philosophy might have resulted directly from the lumbering dinosaur of a cup final witnessed at Twickenham on Saturday.

Not for the first time in recent memory, the Pilkington showpiece failed to live up to the most modest expectations. On the face of it, this one was neither more nor less deflating than the mean-spirited 1994 punch- up between Bath and Leicester, but coming as it did at the end of a seminal season of exhilarating progress, the Tigers' toothless, tryless 9-3 victory over Sale was an unwelcome retreat into a shroud of pinched, pedestrian, one-dimensional rugby.

Sadly, it was the sort of party that sends guests gatecrashing out rather than in. But why the sudden abandonment of the high peaks for life at base camp, "base" being the operative word? Simple. On Saturday, the players of Leicester and Sale did not want to lay on a feast worthy of the occasion. What they sought - and what they achieved, by and large - was a form of rugby sabotage, a stalemate born of an overriding desire to stop each other playing. For whatever reason - fear, tension, fatigue - no one was prepared to take the plunge and make the change from Old English negative to Super 12 positive.

The coaches, Bob Dwyer of Leicester and John Mitchell of Sale, may hail from the sunlit uplands of the rugby-playing landscape - as their fellow Australians and New Zealanders constantly remind us, the modus operandi down south is based on dynamic athleticism rather than all-in wrestling - but neither was in any great hurry to accept responsibility for the shortcomings of their respective outfits. It was left to Brian Campsall, the straight-talking international referee from Yorkshire, to dish out the brickbats and, in the process, identify the lingering disease that continues to render English rugby impotent on the world stage.

"I gave both sides all the latitude they needed to play a fast, expansive game but they didn't want to know," he said, his tone soaked in frustration. "To be quite honest with you, I could have whistled the game into oblivion because both sides were more intent on killing their opponents' ball on the floor than doing something constructive with their own possession.

"It worries me - and, I may say, most senior referees share my view - that this culture of ball-killing is strangling the game here, especially when trophies are at stake. Both sides were at it out there and until the culture changes, we'll continue to have problems. When I refereed the match between Brive and Auckland in France earlier this season, Sean Fitzpatrick, the All Black captain, said to me: 'Thank God we're not in England. All they do there is kill rucks.' It was a damning comment and I had nothing with which to argue."

Mitchell, who dredged up a mighty first-half performance to keep Sale afloat against the elements, also identified the ruck area as a migraine- sized headache. "It's a problem that's hitting English rugby right in the eye and it has to be addressed," said the man from Waikato, where you kill rucks at your peril. "It just doesn't happen back home. We don't even have to use the boot as much as we did because players have learned to present breakdown ball away from the body in order to free up the game."

It is true to say that Leicester, just about shot to pieces after a vicious and wholly unrealistic six-week fixture pile-up, were happy to play out the final within the narrowest of parameters. In Martin Johnson, quite brilliant at the line-out, and Joel Stransky they possessed the only two players of undisputed world class on view. Although the latter's goalkicking radar was off beam - none of his three successful penalties were especially testing - he mixed and matched his punting with customary aplomb.

Sale, on the other hand, overcooked their own ingredients and ended up resembling a pile of canteen cabbage. Dewi Morris did not have the best of days at scrum-half, their line-out disappeared without trace and although Mitchell, Adrian Hadley and Jim Mallinder did their level best to evict the Tigers from the comfort zone, too many balls were lost in contact and too many wide passes missed the target. "You've got to hang on to your possession," Mitchell lamented. "Leicester are a first-phase, set- piece side and by making so many errors we played right into their hands."

And that was about the extent of it. According to Mallinder, there was never a moment when he and his Sale colleagues felt the game had slipped irrevocably away - "We came feeling we had a good chance of winning and that belief was with us until the final whistle" - but the underdogs' extraordinary ability to mess up clear overlaps that Mitchell and company had sweated blood to create proved an insurmountable obstacle to glory.

"It wasn't much of a game to play in and I'm sure it wasn't great to watch," Johnson, the Leicester captain, admitted. "But I don't think we've ever been under so much pressure to win a trophy. We played to win because we had to win." Not exactly the most captivating of high-flown philosophies, but if Johnno goes into the deciding Lions Test in South Africa in July with the same iron commitment and comes out with a result in his kitbag, how many of us will spend the night beefing about lack of style?

Leicester: Penalties Stransky 3. Sale: Penalty Mannix.

Leicester: N Malone; C Joiner, S Potter, W Greenwood, L Lloyd; J Stransky, A Healey; G Rowntree, R Cockerill, D Garforth, M Johnson (capt), M Poole, J Wells (D Richards, 67), E Miller, N Back.

Sale: J Mallinder (capt); D Rees, J Baxendell, A Hadley, T Beim; S Mannix, D Morris; P Winstanley, S Diamond, A Smith, D Erskine, D Baldwin, N Ashurst, J Mitchell, D O'Grady.

Referee: B Campsall (Yorkshire).