Rugby Union: Tigers savage the Euro sceptics

Sale 20 Leicester 20
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For A dress rehearsal, this was mighty close to the real thing. It had to be, because the prize for victory was a place in Europe next season which, in the long term, would be infinitely more rewarding and lucrative than winning Saturday's Cup final.

Leicester went into this match requiring only a draw and, although on the day it was probably more than they deserved, that is what they got with a penalty goal by Joel Stransky six minutes from the end of a frantically close contest. Ed Morrison's refusal to allow more than 15 seconds of injury time infuriated the home support but the truth is that by that time Sale were on their knees.

At times, in fact, the game was too close for comfort and midway through the second half with the nerve ends savagely raw, there was a massive free-for-all after which both captains were lectured. It was not a pretty sight but then it was not a pretty game. There was no question of armed neutrality. The sides tore into each other from the kick-off, Stransky's penalty within 40 seconds of the start giving the early but misleading impression that Leicester were about to stop the rot which has infected their game in recent weeks. It became starkly apparent during the subsequent 39 minutes that this was no more than temporary release from Leicester's terrrible plight.

With craft, wit and all-round pace, Sale left their opponents floundering. The tormentor in chief during this spell was the Sale captian Jim Mallinder, whose every touch spread blind panic in the Tigers defence. In addition to setting up the two first-half tries by Simon Mannix and Phil Winstanley, he carved gaping holes in Leicester's defence and, had he released the ball earlier to David Rees, the margin of Sale's first-half lead would have been more damaging than 10 points.

If Mallinder was the most obvious destroyer, Sale's most influential weapons of destruction were beavering away under cover. The back row of John Mitchell, Dylan O'Grady and Charles Vyvyan, in tandem with Dewi Morris, were in a different league to their opposite numbers, three of whom are in the Lions party bound for South Africa.

The variety and inventiveness of their moves gave yards of space to those around them, in particular to Mallinder. It was all the more unfortunate then that Sale should lose Vyvyan after 25 minutes in what, to the home following at least, appeared to be controversial circumstances. There had been a dust-up between Vyvyan and Martin Johnson and the Leicester lock's proximity to Sale's No 8 as he went down was enough for the crowd. Vyvyan was stretchered off and Sale's back-row was never again quite so dynamic.

Despite Leicester's qualification for Europe it must now be a serious cause for concern that their four Lions are so badly off the pace. Even Austin Healey, who for unquenchable enthusiasm is a clone of Morris, lacked the spark to ignite those around him. Leicester therefore retreated into the bleak and narrow game which they appeared to have shed earlier in the season.

All the invention came from Sale. Mannix's try came from a slashing Mallinder break. The full-back was stopped short but from the quick ruck ball Morris fed his fly-half, whose arcing run took him outside the Leicester cover and over the line. When Winstanley barged over for Sale's second try three minutes before half time and Mannix converted to give Sale a 17-point lead their place in Europe seemed assured. Even when Stuart Potter evaded his markers to score on the stroke of half time it seemed too little too late.

But by now Sale were visibly tiring. The close support of their back row, which had given them such momentum earlier, was conspicuous by its absence. Furthermore the strength of the Leicester scrummage was taking its toll and after prolonged encampment on the Sale line Leicester finally got the penalty try they were seeking.

Three points in it and 18 minutes remaining. It was tight, it was stupifyingly tense and it was uncompromisingly hard. Stransky struck his second penalty cleanly and Leicester were into Europe. The sobering thought for two tired sides is that, if at the end of normal time in the cup final the scores are the same, the players will have to drag their weary limbs into extra time.

Sale: J Mallinder (capt), D Rees, J Baxendell, A Hadley, T Beim; S Mannix, D Morris; P Winstanley, S Diamond, A Smith, D Baldwin, D Erskine, J Mitchell, C Vyvyan (A Morris, 25), D O'Grady.

Leicester: N Malone; R Underwood, S Potter, C Joiner, L Lloyd; J Stranksy, A Healey; G Rowntree, R Cockerill, D Garforth, M Johnson (capt), M Poole (N Drake, 57), J Wells, E Miller (D Richards, 57), N Back.

Referee: E Morrison (Bristol)