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Rugby Union: Mitchell keeps faith with Erskine as Sale prepare for big day

John Mitchell reinforced his reputation as an orthodox, no-nonsense New Zealand hard nut yesterday as he put his Sale side through its paces in advance of Saturday's Pilkington Cup final against Leicester at Twickenham. He was prepared to give Dave Erskine the benefit of the doubt as the Ulster man delayed an operation to straighten his broken nose until after the big day, but John Fowler's flirtation with a faith healer sounded too much like mumbo-jumbo to the man from Waikato.

Mitchell did not even consider the 11th hour claims of his England A lock, despite Fowler's new-found belief in the miraculous; on Saturday, Erskine will again deputise in the engine room alongside Dave Baldwin with Mitchell himself filling in for the injured Charlie Vyvyan at No 8. Fowler is now hoping to overcome his serious knee ligament condition in time for England's tour to Argentina later this month.

The only newcomer to the side that drew a brutal league match with the Tigers last weekend is Neil Ashurst who plays at blind-side flanker. "To lose both Fowler and Vyvyan is absolutely devastating because it leaves us at the very limit of our strength in depth," Mitchell said. "Having said that, Neil possesses the experience to deliver a big game on the big occasion."

SALE (v Leicester, Twickenham, Saturday): J Mallinder (capt); D Rees, J Baxendell, A Hadley, T Beim; S Mannix, D Morris; P Winstanley, S Diamond, A Smith, D Erksine, D Baldwin, N Ashurst, J Mitchell, D O'Grady. Replacements: C Yates, J O'Reilly, M Driver, L Hewson, S Fletcher, A Morris.

The lock Martin Bayfield withdrew from the England tour to Argentina yesterday with a recurrence of his groin injury.

Next season's European Conference will rise from eight clubs to 32, with 16 from France, eight from England, four from Wales and one each from Ireland, Italy, Romania and Scotland.