Hodgson shines as Sale join the chase for place in Europe

Leeds 20 Sale 31
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The Independent Online

A fractured and disappointing match at Headingley before yet another sparse crowd contained both good news and bad. The good is that, apart from Sale having something tangible to aim at by contesting the Wildcard competition for a place in next season's Heineken Cup, Charlie Hodgson is back to near his best, and looks sure to be England's first-choice outside-half on their summer tour to New Zealand and Australia.

Sale first have to surmount a play-off against Gloucester at Kingsholm this weekend. "It is not an easy place to go and win, but the last time we met Gloucester we beat them comfortably, so we will travel with confidence," said their coach, Jim Mallinder.

To have any hope of winning in the West Country, Sale will need to play for the full 80 minutes and tighten up their defence considerably. These were just two of the attributes which did not feature in their game, despite Hodgson's contribution of 21 points, which included a full-house of three penalties, a dropped goal, two conversions and a beautifully-executed try, sparked by his grubber kick and Mark Cueto's pass out of the tackle. That, after Hodgson's conversion, left Leeds grasping thin air and 28-8 down. Had Cueto avoided the sin-bin and Sale not relaxed during the final 10 minutes, allowing Matt Cardey and Tom Palmer to score soft tries, Sale might have won by a landslide.

The bad news is that Leeds are within a centimetre or so of being a shambles. This was their third Premiership home defeat in succession. They have won only four such games at Headingley all season and, unless there is a root-and-branch clear-out of the journeymen who make up the bulk of their squad, they will be trapped in the relegation battle next year. They are desperately unconvincing at half-back, lack any sort of cutting edge in midfield and, with the exception of Palmer and the tireless Dan Hyde, possess a group of forwards who pose about as much threat as the cuddly toys in the club shop.

By half time, even with a try by Hyde and a penalty from Gordon Ross, Leeds were staring into an all-too-familiar abyss. They were uncompetitive everywhere. Sale are not without fault, but these are no more than idiosyncrasies against the Leeds' failings. Chris Rhys Jones opened with a try which had its genesis in a break by Jason Robinson, carried on by the No 8, Chris Jones, who then fed the centre to score. At half-time it was 16-8 to the visitors. Thereafter it was all Sale - with a smashing try from Cueto - until Leeds staged their comeback. But by then the game was up.

Leeds: Tries Hyde, Cardey, Palmer; Conversion Hodge; Penalty Ross. Sale: Tries Rhys Jones, Hodgson, Cueto; Conversions Hodgson 2. Penalties Hodgson 3; Drop goal Hodgson.

Leeds: M Cardey; D Rees, T Davies, D Hodge, D Alabanese (D Scarbrough 54); G Ross (D Clayton 54), A Dickens (R Walker 3-12); G Powell, M Regan (R Rawlinson 65), G Kerr, P Murphy (S Morgan 40), T Palmer (capt), C Rigney (M Cusack 59-70), D Hyde (J Ponton 70-75), A Popham.

Sale: J Robinson; M Cueto, C Mayor, C Rhys Jones (V Going 80), S Hanley; C Hodgson (M Hercus 80), S Benton (R Wigglesworth 80); B Stewart, A Titterrell (J Roddam 80), S Turner (M Halsall 80), C Day (D Schofield 63), J White, P Anglesea (capt; P Davies 52), H Perrett, C Jones.

Referee: T Spreadbury (Somerset).