Rugby Union: Walking wounded fight for the prize

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Desperate straits, desperate remedies and to hell with the consequences. Precisely one week before they meet in the Pilkington Cup final, Sale and Leicester will this afternoon drag the sick from their beds, patch up their walking wounded and take the field at Heywood Road in pursuit of a prize that, if truth be told, means infinitely more than a showpiece outing to Twickenham.

Unexpectedly in Sale's case, unimaginably in Leicester's, today's Courage League finale will decide which of the two goes forward into next season's Heineken Cup competition. It is one or the other, a do or die occasion that promises to leave next weekend's contest standing in terms of intensity.

The curious aspect of this particular battle is that many of the key protagonists are already shot to pieces. Sale, who have always identified Heineken qualification as their first and only priority, are asking Simon Mannix, Dewi Morris, Jos Baxendell and Dave Erskine to ignore strained backs, turned ankles and crushed ribs. Leicester are even more dependent on pills and potions; John Wells plays despite a comprehensively wrecked shoulder joint, while Will Greenwood and Eric Miller are expected to make sudden, not to say miraculous, recoveries from long-term ankle problems.

All this 11th-hour anxiety is hard for Leicester to take. A month ago they were not only stone-cold certainties for Europe, but odds-on favourites to resume cross-border hostilities as English champions; today, they are looking forward to the future with all the relish of a Eurosceptic Scottish Tory.

"For all that, spirits are high," said Bob Dwyer, their Australian coach. "The mood among the players is as determined as you'd expect, given what is at stake. Sale are terribly difficult to beat, but we need to focus on the way we've dealt with other good sides this season and draw strength from that. It's a big game, made all the bigger by the fact that money is involved. We can't really afford not to be in Europe."

Dwyer's selection gambles have produced more than the odd grumble in recent weeks - certainly, the Leicester faithful were aghast when he preferred young Lewis Moody to Wells for last weekend's home match with Harlequins, whose one-point victory landed the Tigers in the hole they now inhabit. But he has gone for the bold option once again today, recalling Leon Lloyd to the left wing, dropping John Liley for Niall Malone at full-back and recalling a thoroughly cheesed-off Austin Healey at scrum-half.

Down in the West Country, Bristol recall Mark Regan and Simon Shaw, their unsettled England and Lions tight forwards, against West Hartlepool at the Memorial Ground. With an edgy play-off beckoning in midweek against Bedford, Bristol considered giving both men an additional few days to recover from injury before opting to squeeze every last ounce of value from their high-profile transfer targets.