Johnson drives Tigers towards European domination

Leicester 48 Sale 27
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The Independent Online

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Martin Johnson re-surfaced at Twickenham on Saturday - his third home, after Welford Road and the inner sanctum of the Rugby Football Union's disciplinary tribunal - and treated himself to a prolonged bleat about the injustice of life on the professional rugby field, directed largely towards the match officials. He also participated in a scrap or two before heading back to the Midlands with another highly significant victory.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Martin Johnson re-surfaced at Twickenham on Saturday - his third home, after Welford Road and the inner sanctum of the Rugby Football Union's disciplinary tribunal - and treated himself to a prolonged bleat about the injustice of life on the professional rugby field, directed largely towards the match officials. He also participated in a scrap or two before heading back to the Midlands with another highly significant victory.

Does any of this sound familiar? It should. As Leicester set about laying into Sale in the final of the Zurich Wildcard mini-tournament, the thought occurred that Johnson remains the outstanding lock in mainland Britain - only Paul O'Connell of Ireland and Fabien Pelous of France threaten a supremacy embracing the whole of Europe - and that under his guidance, the Tigers are close to resuming their position as England's most accomplished club side. Next season could well turn out to be 1999-2002 revisited, a Groundhog year for the union fraternity. Retirement indeed.

By the time Johnson and his fellow enforcers - Neil Back, Julian White, Martin Corry and the brick-hard young second-rower Louis Deacon - had finished marmalising a Sale pack shorn of Andrew Sheridan, Jason White, Iain Fullarton and Pete Anglesea, Leicester had rattled up half a dozen tries and given Andy Goode a welcome opportunity to pepper the posts with his goal-kicking. The contest lasted only until the 29th minute, when Austin Healey extricated himself from a web of his own public howlers by skipping over from close range for a try behind the sticks. The rest was wallpaper, albeit of an unusually in-your-face variety.

So the Tigers will play Heineken Cup rugby next season, possibly in a group headed by Wasps, the new champions. Crikey. Throw in one of the elite French sides and a Welsh region - or perhaps an Irish province - and the pool stage will be something to behold. However, Sale will be missing, and that is a minus. The Jason Robinsons, Mark Cuetos, Steve Hanleys and Charlie Hodgsons are good value on the major European stage, and now that the management is beefing up the pack with Test-class acquisitions, they should soon be free of the frailties that betrayed them here.

Hodgson kicked beautifully on Saturday, and his accuracy was nourishment for the soul ahead of the double-header against the All Blacks, not to mention the World Cup final re-match with the Wallabies. His ingenuity with ball in hand was less in evidence, for the very good reason that the ball concerned was monopolised by the Leicester forwards, and he continues to cut a fragile figure in defence. But with Olly Barkley restricted to a pauper's diet since the end of the Six Nations' Championship - the Bath outside-half managed only three minutes plus stoppage time in the Premiership final - Clive Woodward may opt for the more experienced man. If Hodgson survives the summer tour, Saturday's torment will not have been in vain.

Leicester: Tries: Lloyd 2, Back 2, Healey, Gibson. Cons: Goode 3. Pens: Goode 4. Sale: Tries: Robinson, Hanley, Benton. Cons: Hodgson 3. Pens: Hodgson 2.

Leicester: G Murphy (S Booth 77); A Healey (F Tuilagi 50), L Lloyd, D Gibson, O Smith (J Holtby 51); A Goode, H Ellis; D Morris, G Chuter (D West 66), J White, M Johnson (capt), L Deacon, M Corry, N Back, W Johnson (A Balding 69).

Sale: J Robinson (capt); M Cueto, C Mayor, J Baxendell (V Going 56), S Hanley (J Moores 64); C Hodgson, R Wigglesworth (S Benton 64); B Stewart, A Titterrell (J Roddam 39), S Turner (M Halsall H-T), C Day, D Scofield (P Davies 56), M Lund (B Lloyd 75), H Perrett, C Jones.

Referee: A Spreadbury (Somerset).

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