Rugby Union: Weakened Sale ready to rebuff the champions elect

IT WOULD not be entirely accurate to describe Sale's relationship with Leicester in Ali-Frazier terms; after all, the Manchester club are no one's idea of a true heavyweight. Still, the two sides have spent much of the last three years punching seven bells out of each other and mutual respect is fairly thin on the ground. Sale love to cast Leicester in the "big ugly bear" mould, while the Midlanders have long held the view that their rivals are too lippy for their own good.

Hence the heightened interest in this afternoon's 15-rounder at Heywood Road, where the Tigers have a chance of wrapping up the Allied Dunbar Premiership title three weeks early. "Relationships haven't been brilliant between ourselves and Leicester," admitted Sale's director of rugby, Adrian Hadley, yesterday. "The 1997 league match up here was an acrimonious affair - there was trouble on the pitch and the referee had a rough time off it after awarding them a late penalty try that took them into Europe at our expense. Things have moved on, though. It will be a decent game this time, hopefully."

So keen was Hadley to exercise some water-under-the-bridge diplomacy that he went on to praise Leicester as "worthy champions", ignoring the fact that a Northampton victory at Bedford today would allow Tim Rodber's side to contest the issue for another week at least. "You have to admire their strong squad and consistency of performance," he said. "Leicester away is the toughest game of the season and Leicester at home is the second toughest."

They tend to be particularly tough when your own side is in tatters. Sale have endured a horrible few weeks, bidding a fractious farewell to their coach, John Mitchell, and seeing a number of leading players, including their international wings David Rees and Steve Hanley, pick up season- threatening injuries. Their financial situation is so desperate that they have placed their most recent England cap, Barrie-Jon Mather, on the transfer list. What price a Sale victory under those unpropitious circumstances?

"We aren't frightened of them," insisted Hadley, "even though our own season has been pretty disappointing: brilliant one week, rubbish the next." Brave words indeed but,just to make matters worse for the underdogs, their experienced scrum-half, Kevin Ellis, is a doubtful starter. Leicester, on the other hand, give their own first-choice half-back, Austin Healey, a first Premiership start since February.

Down in mid-table, where a fistful of European contenders are locked in mortal combat, eighth-placed Newcastle will fancy their chances of closing in on a top-six position by beating the travel-sick whipping boys of Gloucester at Kingston Park. Va'aiga Tuigamala and Peter Walton are likely absentees from the Falcons' line-up, while Gloucester go in without their injured Samoan centre, Terry Fanolua, who is replaced by the Premiership debutant Mike Davies. Their midfield problems may be eased next week, however; Cliff Mytton, a 30-year-old Aucklander whose performances for Stade Francais have earned him all sorts of accolades on the far side of the Channel, is being linked with a move to Kingsholm.

By coincidence, Mytton's former colleagues back home in New Zealand have forged an English link of their own. The Auckland Blues, the most successful Super 12 outfit in the history of the southern hemisphere competition, intend to foster a close working relationship with Worcester, the ambitious Premiership Two club coached by Les Cusworth. In addition, the All Blacks intend to use Worcester's state-of-the-art training facilities during this autumn's World Cup.

Meanwhile, the International Rugby Board admitted five new national unions - Cameroon, Colombia, India, Peru and the Pacific island of Niue - to the rugby fraternity during their annual meeting in Buenos Aires. More significantly, they sounded the death knell for old-style rugby elitism by guaranteeing a number of less-fashionable unions regular Test activity against the traditional powers of the 15-man game. Argentina, Canada, Fiji, Italy, Japan, Romania, Tonga, the United States and Western Samoa will all benefit from a new fixture schedule drawn up by Bernard Lapasset, the French chairman of the IRB tours committee.

In addition, board members agreed to ban pain-killing injections both directly before and during matches. Vernon Pugh, the IRB chairman, will head a new anti-doping committee, to be put in place before the World Cup kicks off.

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