Rugby Union: Leicester prepare for tough times ahead

Leicester 31 Sale 15
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The Independent Online
IF THERE is one word that sums up professionalism in rugby union, that word is tough. It is tough on the chief executives and their boards who are responsible for finding funding. Tough on the management, coaches, players and the spectators. Take Welford Road on Saturday.

Leicester, battered, bruised and not a little wind-blown, had no sooner staggered into the welcome warmth of the changing-rooms than they were having to contemplate tomorrow's Allied Dunbar Premiership match away to London Irish.

"We know this is a big one," said Dean Richards, the Tigers' manager after watching his side overcome the first icy blast of winter and the hot-blooded defenders of Sale. "It's going to be a hard match, in fact it could be the toughest match of the season. We know that London Irish are a very good side and have some talented players."

Just like Sale. And if they survive that encounter against a rejuvenated and uncompromising Exiles side, the going remains tough with the visit of Richmond on Saturday. Richards said he was unlikely to name a side until tomorrow morning, not unreasonable for a midweek match when bumps and lumps have to be assessed, but there was little excuse for Sale's antics.

Punters parted with pounds 2 for the match programme only to find they had to make 12 changes to the Sale team which appeared in the programme. That is tough on the fans, but professional it ain't. The composition of John Mitchell's side was hardly going to affect Tigers approach to proceedings.

Rugby is strategically not that flexible. Anyway, most sides prefer to play to their strengths rather than go into a game worrying about who and how the opposition will play.

Mitchell, Sale's director of rugby, was upbeat afterwards: "We are not far away. We will get stronger," he said. "We are close to putting out our No 1 side and I would say that the squad will not change much now. That was an encouraging performance and I was particularly pleased with the commitment when were down to 14 men after Peter Anglesea was sin-binned."

But Leicester were not overly troubled in a game of three halves. The first half was into the chilly wind and driving rain when Sale were at their throats and able to sneak ahead. But in the second half - the third half - stand-off Joel Stransky stuck his boot and brain into affairs and showed Jos Baxendell, his opposite number, just how to dictate.

His cultured kicking repeatedly turned the Sale side, kept them under pressure in their 22 and the Tigers pack, out of sorts in the first 40 minutes, but who caused all sorts of problems after the interval, doing their stuff setting up phase after phase and battering through a courageous defence in the loose, it all became too much for Sale.

Neil Back was worth his two tries. If he began slowly he finished strongly, performing with confidence and class as linkman, hit-man and striker. England will be glad of him in this sort of touch. Sale were no pushover but they were a little raw around the edges, unable to use conditions totally to their advantage.

Leicester: Tries Back 2, Gustard; Conversions Stransky 2; Penalties Stransky 4. Sale: Tries Howarth, Smith; Conversion Howarth; Penalty Howarth.

Leicester: T Stimpson (M Horak, 77); N Ezulike, W Greenwood, P Howard (J Stuart, 77), L Lloyd; J Stransky, A Healey; D Jelley (P Freshwater, 73), D West, D Garforth, M Johnson (capt), F Van Heerden (N Fletcher, 77), P Gustard, M Corry, N Back (L Moody, 77).

Sale: S Howarth (capt); S Hanley, B-J Mather, J Devereux, S Davidson; J Baxendell, R Smith; D Bell, S Diamond (D Geraghty, 64), A Smith, S Raiwalui, C Murphy, P Anglesea, J Machacek, P Sanderson (D O'Cuinneagain, 64).

Referee: Chris Reeks (Frome).

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