Charlie Hodgson may be the most creative outside-half in England, but his creativity counts for precious little when the majority of a game proceeds without him. Hodgson lasted only 35 minutes of yesterday's frank and forthright argument between the teams at the top of Pool Three of the Heineken Cup and while those 35 minutes marked him out as one of rugby's artists, he demonstrated all the physical resilience of Van Gogh after a bad week on the emotional front.
Hodgson damaged his left knee midway through the opening half - the same knee that cost him eight months of rugby following a freak injury during England's Six Nations victory over Italy last March - and was replaced by Braam van Straaten, who plays more like a statue than a sculptor these days. Sale's back division had looked electrifyingly dangerous while the first-choice stand-off was on the field; after his demise, they resembled a set of live wires in search of a fuse.
Suddenly, a centre as good as Graeme Bond was restricted to crash-ball activity, which does not suit him at all; by the end, Bond looked far more shaken than stirred. Similarly, Steve Hanley and Mark Cueto, two of the more threatening wings in the English Premiership, found themselves starved of runnable ball, having been armed and triggered by Hodgson during the opening half-hour, when Sale played their most thrilling rugby of the campaign. Quite simply, they could not rise above the one setback they dreaded most.
"I can't hide it," Jim Mallinder, their coach, admitted. "When Charlie left the field, it showed." Mallinder looked as flat as the proverbial pancake, having seen his team's prospects of a place in the last eight severely dented by the visiting Dubliners. Sale are still in the hunt, but Leinster will top the group if they win their last two pool matches. As second place is unlikely to be good enough in terms of qualification, this was a grievous blow.
It will seem even more wounding when Mallinder turns his attention to the match video. Sale blew a number of opportunities in the early stages - given the stratospheric quality of their approach work, there was a certain irony in the fact that Hanley's 60-metre run-in on eight minutes had more than a suspicion of good fortune about it - and also blew their tackles at important moments. Indeed, both Leinster tries, scored by John McWeeney and his fellow wing Brendan Burke, owed everything to their opponents' defensive frailties.
Hodgson must take some responsibility for the first of them. Having looked a million dollars in attack, he had a defensive kick charged down and then fumbled a pass in the space of a few miserable seconds. Already hobbling, he dropped to full-back as Shane Horgan charged upfield in the general direction of Bond, who promptly fluffed his challenge. When McWeeney took possession with the line in his sights, the injured outside-half never looked like closing him down sufficiently quickly to prevent the score.
There was more of the same shortly after the interval, when Gordon D'Arcy, head and shoulders above the rest of the Leinster back division in terms of attacking intent, slipped away from both Chris Mayor and Van Straaten before putting Burke away down the left.
Jason Robinson, who spends much of his time operating under an England regime that treats a missed tackle as a capital offence, looked horrified, and with good reason. From being 13-3 ahead inside a quarter of an hour, Sale were now 20-16 down.
Despite the brilliance of their line-out work - Iain Fullarton and the outstanding Chris Jones ripped Leinster to shreds in this department - Sale were unable to respond in meaningful fashion. Slowly but surely, the Leinster hard-heads took control; led by Reggie Corrigan and the busy Shane Byrne, they closed down the game and restricted their hosts to a bare minimum of attacking options. It was no mean effort, given the early departures of Eric Miller and Victor Costello, two of their international loose forwards.
Not even Robinson, re-positioned in midfield for the last 10 minutes, could make sense of it. England must now hope that the medics can make sense of Hodgson's latest injury.
Sale: Try Hanley; Conversion Hodgson; Penalties Hodgson 2, Van Straaten. Leinster: Tries McWeeney, Burke; Conversions O'Meara 2; Penalties: O'Meara 3.
Sale: J Robinson; M Cueto, C Mayor (V Going, 69), G Bond, S Hanley; C Hodgson (B Van Straaten, 33), B Redpath; K Yates, M Cairns, S Turner (B Stewart, 28), I Fullarton, D Schofield (M Lund, 57), J White, A Sanderson (capt), C Jones.
Leinster: G Dempsey; J McWeeney, G D'Arcy, S Horgan, B Burke; C Warner, B O'Meara; R Corrigan, S Byrne, P Coyle, M O'Kelly, B Gissing, E Miller (A McCullen, h-t), K Gleeson, V Costello (D Dillon, 45).
Referee: R Dickson (Scotland).Reuse content