Hercus shines as Sale step out of the dark

Sale 26 Saracens 3
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The Independent Online

Sale put a dreadful week behind them by beating Saracens with something to spare in the first of the Powergen Cup quarter-finals in a snowstorm at Edgeley Park last night. After all the uncertainty about the future of their head coach, Jim Mallinder, and a threatened player walk-out, Sale put their troubles behind them in emphatic fashion, having the game all but wrapped up by half-time. Their reward is a home semi-final in two weeks' time, against the winners of today's Headingley clash between Leeds and Bath.

Having won only once in their previous seven games, Sale were in need of something to lift their spirits, and they outplayed Saracens in all facets of the game. "It's been a massive lift for us after what's gone on in the last fortnight,'' Mallinder said. "Our defence was very tight and we took our chances well. We're only 80 minutes from Twickenham and this is a big incentive for us.''

On a heavily-sanded pitch, before the players had time to familiarise themselves with the biting cold and intermittent snow flurries, Steve Hanley made a lacerating break and galloped 40 metres before offloading to Mark Cueto for the opening try. After just three minutes with Mike Hercus's conversion, Sale were seven points to the good.

Hercus, who had such a notable World Cup for the United States, has settled in nicely since his arrival as cover for the injured Charlie Hodgson, and he was mixing his game up astutely. His next trick was to put up a steepling kick to the posts, Paul Bailey failed to catch it cleanly, held on too long in the tackle and Hercus potted the simple goal.

Saracens, strangely muted, had hardly been in the game and could have shipped two more tries, but Magnus Lund, and Chris Jones both knocked on when in the act of scoring. To make matters worse for themselves, Sarries allowed Hercus to strike again, before Jos Baxendell intercepted Taine Randell's loose pass to race 50 metres for Sale's second try. Hercus had no problem with the conversion wide on the right.

Turning round at 20-0, the danger for Sale was complacency, but Saracens were quite unable to find the fluency to trouble Sale who had both attributes in abundance. When Saracens did mount an attack, they spilled the ball or lost contact in the tackle. The malaise even got to Tain Randell, their former All Black captain, and spread through the team like an epidemic.

Although Sale were unable to maintain the first-half scoring rate and Thomas Castaignède kicked a penalty for Saracens, two more penalties from the busy Hercus sealed it for Sale.

Sale:Tries Cueto, Baxendell. Conversions Hercus 2. Penalties Hercus 4. Saracens: Penalties Castaignède.

Sale: J Robinson (V Going, 79); M Cueto, J Baxendell (C Mayor, 79), G Bond, S Hanley; M Hercus, R Wigglesworth (M Simpson-Daniel, 79); K Yates, M Cairns (J Roddam, 74), B Stewart (S Turner, 60), C Jones, J White, A Sanderson (capt), M Lund (I Fullarton, 43), P Anglesea (C Day, 75).

Saracens: P Bailey; R Haughton, B Johnston, K Sorrell, D O'Mahony (D Cech, 32); T Castaignède (D Kirton, 81), M Williams; E Bergamaschi, R Ibañez (R Russell, h-t), B Broster (C Visagie, 40-70), C Yandell, A Codling (S Raiwalui, 32), B Russell, R Hill, T Randell (capt).

Referee: P Pearson (Ashington, Northumberland).

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