Rugby Union: Teague tests Sale's mettle

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Sale 16

Gloucester 14

MIKE TEAGUE donned the cherry and white of Gloucester yesterday for the first time in three and a half years, and must have left wondering why he had been away so long. A thrilling encounter spun him from heroism to despair as he spearheaded his old comrades' drive into an early lead, saw them go behind, and then led them back to within a whisker of a dramatic, last-minute comeback victory.

For newly promoted Sale, here was vindication of an open game plan that had appeared at risk in the top flight after just one win in four games. For the crowd, here were two teams prepared to run their way to victory, the superior inventiveness and handling of the home side being rewarded by the slimmest of margins.

It took Teague just 13 minutes before he was throwing his old skills into the fray. He intercepted a pass from Chris Saverimutto, made for the try- line and initiated the move that led to Gloucester's first penalty and a 3-0 lead.

Such awareness and strength were essential to Gloucester's game, and on his 35th birthday, they came from a warrior far senior to the rest of his team. But who, yesterday, could quarrel with the benefits of age? Only one man was older than him, and that was Paul Turner, the brains and brilliance behind Sale's response.

Turner missed two long penalties during Sale's early period of dominance, but his sleight of hand guided his team back after Mark Mapletoft had kicked Gloucester into a 6-0 lead with his second penalty. Turner's allies in an innovative running game were his full- back, Jim Mallinder, and his two wings, Mark Appleson and Simon Verbickas, who finished with two tries.

The high-risk policy they ran was nearly their downfall - Teague was not the only Gloucester man to intercept a pass from Saverimutto - but it paid dividends on the stroke of half-time when Saverimutto decided not to pass but to run. Breaking from behind a scrum on the halfway-line, he made a 25-yard run before swerving right to link with his three-

quarters and float a long pass to Mallinder, who crashed through to the try-line, slipping a late pass for Verbickas to score.

This established an 11-6 lead, for Turner had already atoned for his earlier misses by kicking two penalties. Martin Kimber replied with a drop goal for Gloucester, but a stunning 60-yard break by Gareth Stocks and Jos Baxendell then led to Turner extending Sale's lead by putting Verbickas over in the right-hand corner for his second try.

For five minutes the Sale crowd sat and waited for Verbickas to complete his hat- trick, but instead they witnessed a nail-biting finish. Tim Smith pulled the score back to 16-14, touching down in the 70th minute, and then it was thrill-a-minute stuff. First Mapletoft missed with the conversion, then with a 40-yard penalty, and in the dying minutes, Gloucester actually breached the Sale try-line only to be called back for a forward pass. If the Sale crowd had a single emotion remaining at the end, it was relief.

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

Gloucester: M Mapletoft; P Holford, S Morris, B Maslen, T Smith; M Kimber, B Fenley; T Windo, D Kearsey, A Deacon (capt), D Sims, R West, M Teague, I Smith, C Raymond.

Referee: A Watson.