Rugby Union: Scope for Saracens to improve

Sale 10 Saracens 19
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Sale 10 Saracens 19

Michael Lynagh's extravagant claim that Saracens are better by 30 points this season than they were last, may yet come to embarrass, if not haunt him.

For the moment Saracens will be content to celebrate their first league victory at Heywood Road since 1998 and rightly point to the improvement on their last visit when, with a European Cup place still in prospect, they were beaten 33-23, only two late scores earning them some respectability.

Saracens' player-coach, Francois Pienaar, believes that his side still have some way to go if they are to be a real force in Allied Dunbar One. "We still have plenty to improve on," Pienaar said. "I think both sides were a little rusty today. But we were perhaps a bit fitter and eventually deserved to win."

Sale, by contrast, are not as well equipped as when the two sides last met. Dewi Morris has gone into retirement, Simon Mannix may have to wait another week or two before his work permit problems are resolved and their player-coach, John Mitchell, has an Achilles tendon injury. Even so, Mitchell has declared his intention of reducing his own playing commitments, especially if a place is to be found for him somewhere in the national coaching set- up, possibly with England A.

Mitchell's immediate concern is to get Sale into shape for the trip to London Irish on Saturday. At times they looked in no better order than the contractors' site which once was a neat, homely ground. While reconstruction work is taking place along the length of one touchline, Mitchell has a building job of his own to contemplate.

As the game took shape it soon became clear that there would be little between them and that it may come down to the margins of error which separate teams who are closely matched. Had Sale pulled away in the first half after Dave Erskine had scored the opening try, the expansive game which comes naturally to them might have obliged Lynagh to reassess his claims. But his opposite number, Shane Howarth, missed with two penalties, and with Lynagh striking twice for the Londoners it was finely balanced, 7- 6 at the interval.

Howarth tilted it further Sale's way with a 40-metre dropped goal soon afterwards, though from there on they never troubled Saracens, except when Tom Beim weaved his way through a thicket of defenders. If Andy Morris had not spilled Beim's pass, Saracens might have cracked.

Instead, Saracens revealed some of the defensive resolve they lacked before Pienaar took the helm. He and his back-row colleagues, Richard Hill and the newly capped Tony Diprose, closed down Sale, who were forced to endure long periods defending their most vulnerable territory.

Nevertheless, when Lynagh missed with a short-range penalty it seemed as if Sale might just hold out. That prospect came a little closer when Lynagh's next attempt struck an upright. But Saracens sensed it was only a matter of time before another opportunity came their way and Lynagh could not continue to miss. When Sale strayed offside 15 metres out, Lynagh gave Saracens the lead for the first time in the match and Diprose put it beyond dispute with a try in injury time.

Sale: Try Erskine; Conversion Howarth; Drop goal Howarth. Saracens: Try Diprose; Conversion Lynagh; Penalties Lynagh 4.

Sale: J Mallinder (capt); D Rees, J Baxendell, A Hadley (C Yates, 77), T Beim; S Howarth, R Smith; P Smith (M Driver, 68), S Diamond, A Smith, C Murphy, D Baldwin, M Kirke, A Morris (D O'Grady, 64), D Erskine.

Saracens: M Singer; R Wallace, P Sella, S Ravenscroft, B Daniel (R Constable, 77); M Lynagh, B. Free; B Reidy, G Botterman, P Wallace, P Johns, A Copsey, F Pienaar, R Hill, A Diprose (capt).

Referee: R Rees (Twickenham).