THEY do not come any closer. After battling for the Second Division title over the season and 18 hard-fought league games, Sale and West Hartlepool fought each other to a stand-still in the final clash of the campaign, with a try and two penalties apiece. The Cheshire side took the title in the end only on points difference.
If there was an edge, it lay in Sale's greater all-round skill. They seemed more complete, more composed under pressure with a sliver more imagination and control.
Central to yesterday's - and the season's success - was Paul Turner, Sale's often-wayward but occasionally brilliant outside-half. He displayed the essential arrogance of the best outside-halves and will no doubt be crucial next season.
He has also got some handy backs outside him: Jim Mallinder at fullback and the winger Simon Verbickas showed First Division flare when they combined to open a gap on the right for the winger to score Sale's only try.
On yesterday's evidence, West Hartlepool will not be a push-over in First Division rugby either. They have certainly got sturdy foundations laid in a pack who will not buckle easily before any side.
The army mechanic Mick Watson was a particularly effective combatant. He opened West's scoring when he plucked the ball at the back of a line-out and galloped 20 yards.
Both sides will no doubt engage in heavy recruiting over the summer. They both know that for intruders from the lower orders, the First Division tends to be a short-stay tenancy.
Only Northampton have survived promotion in the League's seven-year history; every other newcomer has been evicted from the top flight.
West Hartlepool have already started re-gearing themselves for the much tougher environment by bringing in the Australian coach Barry Taylor; the England flanker Tim Rodber, based with the army in Yorkshire, may be a man he would like to attract.
Whatever happens, both these northern clubs should adorn the First Division. Harlequins are in for a mighty scrap when they meet Sale in a mere four months' time.
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).Reuse content