Rugby Union: Sale make returns in close ending: Hartlepool hopes dashed in final minutes

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The Independent Online
West Hartlepool. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .11

Sale . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .11

THOUGH West Hartlepool and Sale have made all the running at the top of the Second Division of the Courage Clubs' Championship, it was not until the final tumultuous minutes of the run-in that Sale made sure of the title.

The sun shone, Brierton Lane was en fete, both teams had already ensured their promotion, the former RFU president Danie Serfontein presented the league trophy, there were no losers, and everyone was happy. In fact, a perfect afternoon.

It is idle to speculate if the final day of next season will bring such joy to either of these teams who, by a considerable margin, were the best in the division. They each achieved the double against third- placed Saracens - the only other club with a say in the outcome - and Sale had beaten West at Heywood Road in December.

So Sale deserved to finish on top of the pile; and West acknowledged as much. For when Sale's acting captain, Jim Mallinder, climbed the steps to receive the Courage silverware, the longest, loudest and most genuinely offered applause came from the West players.

Temporarily ineligible to stand in the limelight, the Sale skipper Mike Kenrick - his right knee rebuilt after a cruciate ligament injury - candidly assessed Sale's triumph: 'It's been hard to get here and it'll be even harder to stay there. We know that we'll have to be fitter, improve our ball control and nail home our chances.'

The same could be said of West, who had every chance of returning to the top flight as the National League Two champions. But, just as when they were previously there, West's goalkicking was second rate and their back play somewhere below that.

In both departments Sale excel; and it was fitting that Paul Turner's second penalty should level the scores after Simon Verbickas had notched his 29th try of Sale's joyful season.

West Hartlepool: Try Watson; Penalties Oliphant 2. Sale: Try Verbickas; Penalties Turner 2.

West Hartlepool: K Oliphant; O Evans (S Cook, 7), A Elwine, P Hodder (capt), D Cooke; A Parker, J Rigley; P Lancaster (P Evans, 77), S Mitchell, P Whitelock, J Dixon, K Westgarth, D Mitchell, A Brown, M Watson.

Sale: J Mallinder (capt); S Verbickas, J Baxendell, M Birt, K Young; P Turner, M Warr; M Whitcombe, S Diamond, A Smith, R McCartney, D Baldwin, D Erskine, D O'Grady, A Macfarland.

Referee: E Morrison (Bristol).

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