Rugby Union: Turner unveils vision of a Manchester united: Underdogs Sale come to The Stoop prepared to conquer as surface tension threatens Bath's supremacy. Steve Bale reports

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The Independent Online
WHEN Sale, a traditionally strong club who gave the rugby world Eric Evans, possibly England's greatest captain, grew fed up with the second- best of the Second Division, they pulled a stunningly unorthodox stroke: they turned to Wales for their salvation.

They took on Paul Turner, capped three times in 1989, as player- coach, got him a job with the insurance company which sponsors the club, and left him to get on with it. From this speculation they have so accumulated that their place in this afternoon's Pilkington Cup quarter- final against last year's

runners-up, Harlequins, is no more than a welcome intrusion into a promising campaign for promotion to the First Division.

This is immensely to Turner's credit. At 34, the former Newbridge, Newport and briefly London Welsh outside-half is playing as well as ever, his influence rubbing off as it used to in Welsh rugby on those around him so that Sale are playing the most exciting and innovative rugby in the top divisions.

'He has been an inspiration,' Steve Smith, the Sale director of coaching and former England captain, said. This is the sort of language Turner evidently likes to hear. 'It was a gamble coming up here, stepping from one rugby culture and into another but it was a breath of fresh air for me and I do believe people at the club appreciate what I've been doing,' he said.

The promotion race appears destined to go to the final Saturday when Sale, who lie second, go to the leaders West Hartlepool. The trick then will be first to stay up and then to flourish, but Sale already have a big, powerful pack and try-scoring backs, not to mention Turner himself, and with astute recruitment they will be better placed than most promoted clubs to do both.

Turner will enjoy being there to see it and also, even at 34, to experience it. 'Dennis Hughes (the ex- Wales flanker) was still playing good rugby for Newbridge at 42 and, provided I keep clear of injury, I could still be playing at 37,' Turner said. 'I'd want to go for it in the First Division, but I'm realistic enough to know that if it didn't work out I would have to react accordingly.'

No chance of that, according to Smith. 'I've no doubt whatsoever that Paul could carry through into the First Division what he has done so successfully in the Second. Two- thirds of the problem comes if you lose the hunger but he's still got it.'

How are the mighty, who once fell heavily, rising again. Long before Turner, Sale were the original victims of the Courage Clubs' Championship since they trailed in bottom of the First Division in the league's first season. Unprepared and unworthy, they went down in a welter of points against: 215 in their final four horrendous matches.

That was 1988, when their 11 championship points comprised one for each time they turned up. It took five years to get over the trauma and humiliation. The Quins game may be extraneous to their main business but it is precisely the sort of high-profile event from which Sale absented themselves when they were relegated.

Season after season of Second Division mediocrity followed and it took the contraction in the division's size and the consequent necessity of finishing in last season's top five to generate the action that has culminated in today's appearance at The Stoop and more particularly a thrilling brand of winning rugby.

It is not before time. Sale is on the Cheshire side of Manchester and the club is desperate to establish itself as the city's main centre for rugby union. Negotiations to merge with Broughton Park and build a purpose-built stadium are in hand and as there already exists a Manchester Rugby Club, the idea of calling the new club Manchester United RFC has been seriously mooted.

Whatever the nomenclature, Sale hope against hope the development will be enough to retain Turner, who was on the point of packing it in last season when he was beset by injury, his family was unable to settle in the North-west and his house in south Wales remained on his hands. (It still is.)

'We'd like to keep him for years to come,' Smith said. 'What he'd like to do is go into a full-time coach's job and I hope we as a club can be big enough to fulfil him in that. If the club can gain some cash assets as opposed to land assets, the aim is to spend it on rugby.'

This ambition would be realised by the sale of Sale's Heywood Road ground and training ground as well as Broughton Park's at West Chorlton, providing funds for a new facility and the establishment of a rugby centre of excellence to tap the vast potential of the Manchester area.

'We have the biggest conurbation outside London; we have the biggest student population in Europe; we should be strong in rugby here,' Smith said. 'The trouble is we have a small football club by the name of Manchester United up the road and there is rugby league, so in reality we are the third sport. But the potential is enormous and we've only just begun to tap it.'