Rugby Union: Tigers' place in Europe

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The Independent Online
Martin Bell's first act on entering the House of Commons should be to introduce a Private Members' Bill aimed at widening the boundaries of his Tatton constituency to include Sale's ramshackle and hopelessly outdated rugby ground at Heywood Road. It would surely help the Man in the White Suit settle into his new role; after all, war zones make him feel at home.

Come to think of it, the eternally fragrant Mrs Neil Hamilton might have found the blood-red atmosphere more amenable still as Sale and Leicester, domestic cup finalists this weekend, hit seven bells out of each other on Saturday in pursuit of the last English foothold in next season's Heineken European Cup. If her formidable performance on the hustings was anything to go by, Mrs H would have made short work of sorting out the three separate fist-fights that broke out simultaneously in the 51st minute of what Austin Healey, the Tigers scrum-half at the very epicentre of the fisticuffs, euphemistically described as a "heated encounter".

Not for the first time this season, Martin Johnson, the Lions captain, incurred the seething wrath of a crowd whose partisanship bordered on the paranoid. The Cheshire faithful blamed him for everything under the sun both during and after the 20-20 draw that gave the Midlanders that precious passport to Europe at Sale's expense: Charlie Vyvyan's broken left ankle, Dave Erskine's flattened nose and, it seemed, the Tories' election defeat were all laid squarely at Johnno's door.

As an exercise in myopic victimisation, it was in a class of its own. For those equipped with a full complement of eyeballs, the Leicester lock was at his commanding best and if he did not exactly emphasise the angelic, mother's son side to his occasionally dark nature, he was by no stretch of the imagination the biggest villain in this particular rogues' gallery. Indeed, Fran Cotton, a Sale man to the marrow but with Lions business looming ever larger in his mind, would have seen nothing to shake his belief in Johnson's captaincy credentials.

The match was hard to the point of hellishness - each and every forward bore on his face the bruised and blackened insignia of battle - and it was to Leicester's eternal credit that they clawed their way back from 20-3 down, especially as so many key players were carrying injuries. Eric Miller, who should not have played at all, lasted almost an hour on his brittle ankle; John Wells, the pain from his crippled shoulder joint etched into his features, made it all the way to the final whistle; Johnson, slowed by a groin condition that will be of immense concern to the Lions management, was still clattering into rucks and mauls come the end.

"Phew, tough game," said Bob Dwyer, the Tigers coach. "I have no hesitation in saying that we deserve to be in Europe next season; in fact, it would have been a travesty had we not made it, given the good things we have achieved this season. But that kind of talk doesn't count for much. You still have to go out there and perform and that is when you need your positive guys to stand up and show what they can do.

"Look at Eric. There is one positive bloke. He wasn't remotely ready to play that sort of match, to be honest with you, but he was pretty determined to make whatever contribution he could. We expected 40 minutes tops from him but he managed 50-odd. Terrific effort.'' Understandably, the word "terrific" was not to be found in the Sale vocabulary. Adrian Hadley, rumbustious centre and forthright team manager, was none too impressed with the second-half penalty try awarded to Leicester by Ed Morrison and even less amused by the referee's decision to allow a mere half a minute of injury time. Asked if Sale were capable of turning the tables on the same opponents in this weekend's Pilkington Cup final, Hadley's reply was as barbed as a farm fence. "Of course we are, provided we have a ref with a Timex who knows what constitutes a penalty try.''

That try, awarded 17 minutes from time following the umpteenth scrum in an interminable spell of Tigers pressure rugby, brought the visitors within three-point range for the first time in almost an hour and there was an air of inevitability about Joel Stransky's equalising penalty 12 minutes later. Dwyer had no doubts as to the legitimacy of Morrison's fateful call - "It seemed very likely that we would get over if no one took the set-piece to ground, so as far as I am concerned that is a penalty try" - but the furious reaction of the Sale front row suggested a hint of con-artistry from their opponents.

Yet Sale might not have found themselves in so tight a corner had Charles Vyvyan, their strong and intelligent No 8, lasted the distance; while they were able to depend on his communicative relationship with Dewi Morris at the scrummage base, the northerners looked by far the more dangerous attacking force and proved the point with a fine early score for Simon Mannix. With Jim Mallinder in his pomp at full-back and Leicester's kicking game in tatters, a turn-up was very much on.

But Vyvyan was lost to the home side early in the second quarter, his ankle trapped awkwardly at the bottom of a pile-up as Johnson came steaming full-tilt into one of many ill- tempered mauls. John Mitchell moved across the back row to fill the gap but although he laid the foundations for a second try by Phil Winstanley, Sale had forfeited something of their dynamism. When Stuart Potter struck back for the Midlanders with a cleverly angled run on the half-time whistle, their self- belief diminished also.

They will need to rebuild that quickly if they are to exact a degree of revenge at Twickenham on Saturday but Leicester, their European mission completed, feel good about their chances of pocketing the silver pot. "We will be nowhere near as tentative," Dwyer said. "There will be no fear of failure, no fear of the unknown. I think we will play with greater freedom in the cup final." You have to fear for Sale.

Sale: Tries Mannix, Winstanley; Conversions Mannix 2; Penalties Mannix 2. Leicester: Tries Potter, penalty try; Conversions Stransky 2; Penalties Stransky 2.

Sale: J Mallinder (capt); D Rees, J Baxendell, A Hadley, T Beim; S Mannix, D Morris; P Winstanley, S Daimond, A Smith, D Erskine, D Baldwin, J Mitchell, C Vyvyan (A Morris, 26), D O'Grady.

Leicester: N Malone; R Underwood, S Potter, C Joiner, L Lloyd; J Stransky, A Healey; G Rowntree, R Cockerill, D Garforth, M Johnson (capt), M Poole (D Richards, 55), J Wells, E Miller (W Drake-Lee, 55), N Back.

Referee: E Morrison (Bristol).