Rugby Union: Richards snarls as Tigers eye title

Sale 17 Leicester 41
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The Independent Online
TO HIS critics, Dean Richards is a managerial dinosaur; not some innocent, plant-eating brachiosaurus, but a ruthless, bone-crunching tyrannosaurus figure whose idea of fun is watching his Leicester charges drown their victims in the primordial swamp. The way his many accusers tell it, the Tigers have reverted to type under his stewardship. They mangle opponents at the scrummage, strangle them at the line-out, and leave them dangling by the short and curlies at the breakdown. In short, they are no fun to play against and even less fun to watch.

Yet, in the immediate aftermath of Saturday's one-sided spring gallop at Heywood Road, a five-try victory that left the Midlanders within a point of the Allied Dunbar Premiership, England's famously introspective former No 8 revealed a previously unsuspected talent for forward thinking. In fact, the future was playing on his mind to such a degree that he was far more intent on moaning about next season than discussing the one still in progress.

Deano is not remotely impressed with the way the 1999-2000 campaign is shaping up, what with all the fixture congestion caused by the European Cup and the Six Nations and what he considers to be a quarter-baked, half-crazy plan to proceed with the Premiership in September and October in spite of the fact that the leading contenders will be shorn of their World Cup personnel. "I'm extremely worried about the whole thing, not least because this is my job and I don't want to be managing a side that might be bottom of the league come the autumn," he grumbled.

Bottom of the league? Just a smidgen of an exaggeration, perhaps? Leicester may lose three-quarters of their pack and a couple of backs to the England World Cup squad in September, but the mass exodus would still leave them with a Test hooker in Dorian West, a Springbok lock in Fritz van Heerden, and the likes of Paul Gustard, Lewis Moody, Joel Stransky, Pat Howard, Leon Lloyd and Tim Stimpson to help them through the lean times. Surely you could make do and mend with that lot, Deano? The dear old stick was having none of it.

"It's almost as if we're going to be penalised for having decent players," he insisted. "We could be bottom after eight or nine games and, if we are, it will be very difficult to play catch-up from November onwards. Apart from anything else, the proposed wage cap will prevent us recruiting sufficient cover. It's all very well for Tom Walkinshaw [the Gloucester owner and chairman of English First Division Rugby] to suggest playing through the World Cup, but how many is he likely to lose to the tournament?"

While Richards was calling for heads to be banged together and goal- posts to be moved, his opposite number at Sale was concentrating on more immediate problems. Adrian Hadley was a Welsh international wing at 19 and a rugby league professional at 24. Now, at 36, he is clearly intent on carving out a new career as one of the most entertainingly acerbic critics in the union game, specialising in spectacular rollockings of his own workforce. If Hadley was anywhere near as pointed in the dressing room as he was in the press conference, Jim Mallinder and company will still be aiming fire hoses at their burning ears.

Asked how many players might be joining Barrie-Jon Mather, the new England centre, on the Sale transfer list in the coming weeks, he replied: "The way we played out there, I'd like to say most of them. We didn't front up for all the people who turned out to support us, and that disappoints me. Deano might be worried about losing half his squad to various World Cup teams at the start of next season but, judging by our performance, we won't be losing too many from here. Our defence needs a lot of work; it may have been brilliant two years ago, but it's not brilliant now." There you have it.

Short, sharp and very much to the point.

No one was inclined to argue with Hadley's summary. Dave Lougheed's finish at the start of the second quarter was a pearl, but Leicester scarcely had to break sweat for their other tries. Sale conceded the softest of tap-and-scamper scores to Austin Healey on 16 minutes, failed miserably to close down Martin Corry shortly before half-time, and gifted Neil Back two wrestle-over touchdowns from line-outs at either corner flag after the break. They really should have seen Back coming; the inexhaustible England flanker has spent the entire season burrowing his way in for five-pointers from precisely those positions.

Leicester may have suffered all manner of agonies and indignities at Sale in recent seasons but this one was a cakewalk. Martin Johnson and the strikingly accomplished Van Heerden fired far too many bullets up front, and there were some high-class contributions from Pat Howard and Jon Stuart in midfield. Howard we already knew about from his Wallaby exploits but Stuart, no veteran at 23 but no prodigy either, looked an intriguing addition. "He's good, and he could be very good," said Richards. "Injuries to first-choice players have given him a look-in and he's taken his chance."

When England gave a stack of Sale wannabees - Matt Moore, Jos Baxendell, Duncan Bell, Pat Sanderson - an unexpected chance in the southern hemisphere last summer, they returned home in pieces. "That trip set them back miles," said Hadley. "When you play for your country on tour you should come back on a high. These guys came back with their confidence drained. Duncan was drained and he only played about 10 minutes on the whole trip. They weren't ready in my view, particularly as the squad was so weak."

Happily, there were signs that some of the 1998 cannon fodder had put the worst behind them. Moore ran enthusiastically, Bell propped his heart out and Baxendell showed one or two wildly inventive touches in midfield. There was a big first-half performance from Phil Greening, too; he remains the most gifted ball-handling hooker in the country and, on this evidence, Clive Woodward might have one last go at rehabilitating the Gloucester exile at international level.

Sale: Tries Baxendell, Howarth, Mather; Conversion Howarth. Leicester: Tries Back 2, Healey, Lougheed, Corry; Conversions Stimpson 2; Penalties Stimpson 4.

Sale: J Mallinder (capt); B-J Mather, J Baxendell, C Yates, M Moore; S Howarth, R Smith; D Bell, P Greening, D Theron, S Raiwalui (D Baldwin, 60), C Murphy, P Anglesea, D O'Cuinneagain (P Sanderson, 60), A Sanderson.

Leicester: T Stimpson; L Lloyd, C Joiner (G Murphy, 76), J Stuart, D Lougheed; P Howard, A Healey (J Hamilton, 72); G Rowntree (D Jelley, 64), R Cockerill (D West, 64), D Garforth (G Rowntree, 71), M Johnson (capt), F Van Heerden, L Moody (P Gustard, 64), M Corry (W Johnson, 72), N Back.

Referee: B Campsall (Yorkshire).