Rugby Union: Howarth highlights Woodward's dilemma

Sale 30 London Irish 27
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CLIVE WOODWARD had one of those wistful afternoons when he would probably have rather been somewhere other than Heywood Road. With doubts about who will occupy the right-wing place for England in the match with Wales at Wembley on Sunday, Woodward came to take another look at Steve Hanley and Barrie-Jon Mather.

Mather, on the bench against France last month, only came on as a substitute for Chris Yates in the fourth quarter of a sparkling match. Hanley, fit again after recovering from a dislocated shoulder, twice had the opportunity to break the 27-27 deadlock in the final, frenetic 15 minutes. At the first time of asking Hanley made a superb break, but his pass to Matt Moore with the line open was too low and the winger spilled the ball. At the second, Hanley made the corner but was prevented from scoring by Conor O'Shea's last-ditch tackle. Shades of England in both Dublin and at Twickenham this season.

If the recollection of England's lack of finishing power was painful to recall, then Woodward was reminded once more of the opportunity lost when England allowed Shane Howarth to slip through the net. With problems far greater at outside-half than on the wings, how much better England would be with him in the No 10 jersey.

Howarth's grandfather was raised just up the road from Sale at Accrington, but the Auckland-born player also has impeccable Celtic and Gaelic grandparentage and opted for Wales thanks to his close links with Graham Henry, their Kiwi coach. So Henry's gain has been England's loss. And what a loss.

In their last two home League matches Sale have beaten sides from the top three. London Irish, whose defeat may well have jeopardised their chances of a place in Europe next season, were simply out-Howarthed. Woodward could only look on in admiration as Howarth gave a near-flawless performance at outside-half, and then provided the finish with an injury-time drop goal to win the game.

Irish, a mite surer in defence, just shaded the first half 20-24, scoring all their tries in this period, from O'Shea, Rob Gallacher and Nick Harvey. Jarrod Cunningham converted them all, and kicked a penalty. Kevin Ellis and Howarth had crossed for Sale, Howarth converted both and slotted two penalties. From then on it was a matter of how long Irish could hold out. Phil Greening started the slide with a try and, after Cunningham rised Irish hopes with his second penalty, Howarth killed them off with his drop-dead goal.

Sale: Tries Howarth, Ellis, Greening. Conversions Howarth 3. Penalties Howarth 2. Drop Goal Howarth.

London Irish: Tries O'Shea, Gallacher, Harvey. Conversions Cunningham 3. Penalties Cunningham 2.

Sale: J Mallinder (Capt); M Moore, J Baxendell, C Yates (B J Mather, 63), S Hanley; S Howarth, K Ellis (R Smith, h-t); D Bell (P Winstanley. 69), P Greening, D Theron, S Raiwalui, C Murphy (D Baldwin. 55), P Anglesea, A Sanderson, D O'Cuinneagain (A Morris. 9).

London Irish: C O'Shea (Capt); J Bishop, N Burrows, B Venter, J Cunningham; S Bachop, K Putt (K Campbell, h-t); M Worsley (N Hatley, 20), M Howe (R Kirke, h-t), R Hardwick (K Fullman, 66), R Strudwick, N Harvey, J Boer, R Gallacher, I Feaunati.

Referee: C Rees (Twickenham).