Rugby Union: Sale dream of survival as Quins drift off

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The Independent Online
SALE time in the Courage Clubs' Championship. Which is to say that for Sale it is First Division time and with it the question that faces every newly instated First Division club: how to survive?

It is a modest enough aim, and Sale showed the wherewithal to achieve it by digging so deeply into a 20-point half-time deficit that they lost by just the one point, 20-19, when they introduced themselves against Harlequins at Heywood Road.

Sale were not inhibited from playing the expansive rugby that had won them last season's Second Division and, in the 34-year-old former Wales stand-off Paul Turner, they enjoy one of rugby's most enduringly skilful practitioners. As long as Sale's coaching director resists the urge to retire, the art of passing will not be dead.

The fact remains, though, that this was a home game dropped - and one, moreover, that Sale effectively lost in the opening 20 minutes, the very period when their Second Division naivety had been decisively exposed by Quins in last season's Cup quarter-final. Notwithstanding Quins' pedigree, from here it will not necessarily get easier.

This is not a counsel of despair, simply a statement of the obvious. You have only to look at Courage League history to see how difficult, verging on impossible, it has been for promoted clubs ever since Sale ingloriously toppled out of the First Division at the end of its inaugural season, 1987-88.

Among their conquerors then, by the small matter of 66-0, were Harlequins, and it took Sale six long years before they were capable of making their way back up again. Their return is welcome, since the city of Manchester is a huge and therefore underrepresented place as far as rugby is concerned. The feeling at Heywood Road is that if they can hang on for a couple of seasons the metropolitan catchment area will then ensure that Sale again become one of the most significant forces in England, as they were in the distant 1980 days when Fran Cotton and Steve Smith were England Grand Slammers.

For all the promise of Sale's debut against Quins, to stay up would be some achievement since only Northampton, of all the clubs ever promoted from the Second Division, have done so. For now Sale need to wise up to the realities of First Division life, an obvious one of which is that rugby is an 80- minute game, though you would never have guessed it from Quins.

Three tries in the first half-hour amid a monopoly of possession and a blaze of attacking rugby were as good a start as they ever imagined. Intelligent midfield distribution by Peter Mensah, the old Old Millhillian, and Will Carling freed Daren O'Leary for the first after Sale had profligately turned over the ball. Chris Sheasby worked the short side for the second, and Carling sauntered in isolation through the Sale defence for the third.

And then . . . nothing. 'For 20 minutes we played the sort of rugby teams only dream about. Then we dreamed,' Keith Richardson, the new coach, said. During Quins' second-half reverie, with Turner the splendid orchestrator, Sale wove their intricate patterns well enough to pull back three tries of their own.

Turner and Charlie Vyvyan combined to Gareth Stocks's advantage for the first. The burly Neil Ashurst won the loose ball with which he combined with

Simon Verbickas before scoring the second. And finally Vyvyan again appreciated what Turner was up to in the creation for him of the third. Good for Sale; bad for Quins, for whom the game epitomised the questionable attitude and commitment which have made them such poor league competitors when they should be in the shake-out every season. Richardson is coming to terms with the culture shock after his years as coach of Gloucester, Quins reckoning that an earthy dose of outside influence may be what they need.

Mind you, they went even further afield with the appointment of Australia's assistant coach, Bob Templeton, for the past two seasons. Richardson, a native of Seaton Delaval, Northumberland, may have difficulty making himself understood at The Stoop but seems to think that the Harlequin players speak much the same language as their counterparts do at Gloucester.

'Harlequins are not what people think,' he said. 'We've all got this popular image of an airy-fairy London club, but they're not like that. They're typical rugby players, and I find them dead easy to get on with. In soccer that usually means you're going to get the sack.'

Hardly. Let us not forget that Harlequins actually won. And let us also not forget that this was a typically incomplete league performance of a sort that would more or less guarantee defeat by the likes of Bath, Leicester or Wasps (who play at The Stoop next Saturday).

The trouble is that no one - and that seems to apply within the club as well as outside - expects them to do any better, despite having as many quality players as any club in the First Division. 'I want the expectation level to be much higher,' Richardson said. 'They know they are capable of much more than that.' Yes they know, but do they really care?

Sale: Tries Stocks, Ashurst, Vyvyan; Conversions Turner 2. Harlequins: Tries O'Leary, Sheasby, Carling; Conversion Bray; Penalty Bray.

Sale: J Mallinder (capt); S Verbickas, G Stocks, J Baxendell, K Young; P Turner, C Saverimutto; M Whitcombe, S Diamond, A Smith, D Baldwin, D O'Grady, D Erskine, C Vyvyan, N Ashurst.

Harlequins: K Bray; D O'Leary, W Carling, P Mensah (R Glenister, 78), G Thompson; P Challinor, R Kitchin; J Leonard, B Moore (capt), M Hobley, A Snow, W Davison, T Coker, C Sheasby, M Pepper.

Referee: E Morrison (Bristol).

(Photograph omitted)