Harlequins received another painful reminder that there is rugby north of Leicester when, for the third time this season they were defeated by Sale, and once again by a margin of two tries. So for the first time in three attempts Sale succeeded in imposing themselves in the semis to go on to the Pilkington Cup final at Twickenham.
On the face of it Sale seem just the size of club to be in severe difficulties in the new professional era. Instead they have brushed aside the predictions that they would fade gradually from sight to reach a respectable position in the First Division and to kill a series of giants in the Cup. Especially in their home ground of Heywood Road, where the spectators are drawn up feet from the pitch, and a capacity crowd of 4,700 spectators seems like multitudes, they are a formidable side: stubborn, pugnacious, brave and playing a risky game as though they have nothing at all to lose.
Convinced that the future of North-west rugby depends on their success - as well it might - they began the game far more charged up than their metropolitan opponents. They moved the ball from the start, the halves combining with the back-row and, although an early penalty from their stand-off Simon Mannix was almost immediately countered by Harlequins' Thierry Lacroix, by the 11th minute they had taken a lead which they were never to lose. From a quick penalty, Adrian Hadley made a cutting run through the centre and typically it was the flanker, Dylan O'Brady, who was on his shoulder in support to take the final pass and score under the posts.
Lacroix again pulled three points back, after Sale had moved Harlequins away from a pressure point beneath their posts, but only at the expense of conceding a penalty in the corner. Then came the passage of action which decisively swung the game in Sale's favour. As Harlequins continued to press, the normally sticky fingers of Peter Mensah pushed forward Will Carling's pass just short of the line and near enough to the goal to make a conversion a reasonable certainty.
So instead of Harlequins being 13-10 ahead, within three minutes they were 15-6 down and mired in problems. This came about from a wonderful pass which Jim Mallinder, their veteran full-back and captain, took with an athletic lunge forward as the pass from Mannix threatened to swish past him. Without checking a step he swept forward with a speed unexpected in a 31-year-old unreasonably disregarded by the England set-up. He went through for the try, and although Mannix failed with the conversion, he kicked his second penalty to give Sale an 18-6 lead at the interval.
After that it was simply a question of hanging on. Lacroix and Mannix exchanged further penalties, which kept the game dampened down, and then came the second dropped pass, which denied Harlequins any hope of recovery. This time the culprit was their full-back, Paul Challinor, who lost the ball in his own half. Tom Beim, the Sale left-wing, who could scarcely believe his good fortune, swooped to pluck it from the ground and was off on a long diagonal run that covered more than half the length of the field, and though with the shortest of leads and the ball to carry, he went clean towards the right corner to touch down. That was it.
Harlequins were now in some disarray, replacing four players within the space of 11 minutes. The last to go was Carling, who limped off to a chorus of "Why was he born so beautiful?" from the pitiless massed choir of jubilant Sale supporters. Harlequins were still to have the last word, Gareth Llewellyn scoring from a line-out turned maul on the Sale line. Lacroix converted, but by now the score was simply a matter of saving face. Sale were safely through to their first final, and had the added satisfaction of getting there over the prone bodies of the team who, more than any other, symbolise in the north the lasting domination of London values on the England game.
Sale: J Mallinder (capt); D Rees, J Baxendell, A Hadley, T Beim; S Mannix, D Morris; P Winstanley, S Diamond, A Smith, D Baldwin, J Fowler, D Erskine, J Mitchell,D O'Brady.
Harlequins: B Challinor (J Williams,58); D O'Leary, P Mesah, W Carling (Sckeyter,69), S Bromley; T Lacroix, H Harries (N Walshe,67); J Leonard (capt), T Billups, L Benezech, A Snow (G Allison,62), G Llewellyn, R Jenkins, L Cabannes, W Davison.
Referee: T Spreadbury (Bristol).Reuse content