Rugby Union: Mitchell leaves Sale in search of pack with punch

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The Independent Online
JOHN MITCHELL cut a pretty dangerous figure during his days as a mean-eyed All Black No8 but, in the eyes of one or two hard-pressed Premiership directors of rugby, he must appear far more menacing as an ambitious coach without a club to call his own. Mitchell, the former Waikato captain whose impressive record with the England forwards will add considerable weight to his CV, walked out on Sale yesterday after an uncomfortable few months in which he made no secret of his desire to move to a bigger concern.

Adrian Hadley takes over as head of rugby at Heywood Road after a stint as team manager - he will be answerable to Graham Walker, who yesterday experienced an interesting first day as Sale's new chief executive - while Jim Mallinder, the popular thirty-something full-back who won two England caps in Argentina in 1997, is likely to take over the lion's share of the coaching. The club issued a statement thanking Mitchell for his success in guiding them to a cup final and semi-final in successive years, but the parting of the ways was undoubtedly less than harmonious.

Since arriving in England three years ago, Mitchell has been one of the more colourful figures in the domestic game, a reflection both of his "do it right or don't do it at all" approach to man-management and his status as one of the highest-paid coaches in the Premiership. Sale occasionally scaled the heights under his stewardship but despite the emergence of the odd high-class player, David Rees and Alex Sanderson in particular, he was unable to piece together a match-winning pack. The frustration was mutual: last week, Mitchell was roundly criticised at a players' meeting.

Where he goes now is anyone's guess, but he will not be short of offers. Neither Newcastle nor Wasps employ a front-line forwards coach, although both have successful directors of rugby in Rob Andrew and Nigel Melville, while Gloucester remain in a state of back-room flux in the aftermath of Richard Hill's abrupt sacking. Mitchell may even fancy a move to Bath, although Andy Robinson appears to have emerged intact from his mid-season doldrums.

Meanwhile, Bath suffered a departure of their own yesterday when Ieuan Evans, one of the finest wings of his generation, announced his retirement two months ahead of schedule. The 35-year-old Welshman, who won a record 72 caps for his country and made three Lions tours, had not played since mid-January because of a toe injury and saw little prospect of regaining form and fitness before the end of the season, when his contract was due to expire.

France yesterday recalled Yann Delaigue, the gifted midfield player from Toulouse, to their squad for the Five Nations finale with Scotland in Paris on Saturday week and pulled in the uncapped flanker Christian Labit, also from Toulouse, to bolster their flagging back-row options in the absence of Olivier Magne, Marc Lievremont and Philippe Benetton. Marc Dal Maso, the Colomiers hooker, and Thierry Cleda, the ball-winning second row from Pau, were also named in a 22-man squad, replacing Marc de Rougemont and David Auradou respectively. Thomas Lombard, the Stade Francais wing who missed the Tricolores' 21-10 defeat at Twickenham through injury, returns for Philippe Bernat-Salles.

Labit is no spring chicken - most players make their mark at international level long before the age of 28 - but he is 6ft 6ins and weighs an impressive 17st. "We have chosen to give a chance to in-form club players and Labit is playing well," explained the French team manager, Jo Maso. "It's up to him to seize his opportunity; he is very tough physically, he is fast and he is powerful." The complete opposite to the French back row at Twickenham, then.

In Scotland, union officials were caught on the hop by the decision of Tennents, the brewing giant, to exercise an opt-out agreement and cut their sponsorship ties two years earlier than expected. The companyblamed the uncertainty surrounding the future of the domestic game in Scotland.

France squad, Digest, page 29