Jonathan Davies: Tigers learn a sense of adventure to go with their power
In Harry Ellis they have a creative force bang in form
Sunday 21 May 2006
We are now facing the final final of the rugby season. A few days before June arrives, the Guinness Premiership Final at Twickenham on Saturday will definitely put an end to domestic hostilities until September and, at last, English rugby will have an overall champion.
It seems a tortuous way of getting there but, as with summer international tours, it is all part of maximising revenue for the game. I am sure it is more than just squeezing the last bit of admission money from the fans - but, in any case, the fans seem to love it.
It is certainly a promising showpiece to look forward to. Having won the long league campaign in some style, Sale will probably feel strange having to prove their worth all over again in a one-off but that should give them plenty of motivation. And you can depend that Leicester, having fallen below their usual standards in the league and the cups, will be ready to leap at this chance to finish on a high note. So there will be no lack of commitment and effort. They will both be up for it.
Leicester are always tough to beat, I am a big fan of their approach and have respect for what they have achieved. But it has been four years since they won a top trophy and the way they lost to Wasps in the Powergen and Bath in the Heineken Cup would have been very hurtful.
London Irish found out how hurtful when they crashed 40-8 to the Tigers in the semi-final. I thought Leicester would win because it was played at Welford Road but I did not expect such a massive margin. Irish had not lost on the road since Leicester beat them 35-3 in November and they walked into another hammering and were overwhelmed by five tries to one.
It was a performance that showed Leicester's mental toughness and also proved that they have the ability to move the ball around in devastating fashion. In scrum-half Harry Ellis they have a creative force who is bang in form while Martin Corry appears determined to prove that England should be taking him to Australia instead of resting him. With such players on top of their game and the momentum behind them, Leicester will be difficult to beat.
While Leicester were beating Irish, Sale were disposing of the reigning champions Wasps by a much slimmer margin and thanks mainly to a brilliant try by Jason Robinson. Robinson settled what was a tight and bruising encounter with a brilliant 50-yard dart for the game's only try.
There was a time when such penetrative ability was Sale's stock in trade but they have changed into a tough, pack-dominated team who do not play anything like as much football as they used to.
Maybe, that's the sort of transformation a team need to go through these days but there's always a market for magic at the top. In their Heineken Cup quarter-final against Biarritz, I felt that Sale were far too negative. Had they been more adventurous I am sure they would have fared better but their tactics played into the hands of the French team. It is a shame because they have such a pacy back three in Robinson, Mark Cueto and Oriol Ripol.
But in Mark Taylor and Elvis Seveali'i they have a centre partnership that is more defensive than offensive. Both are having a very good season but their presence betrays Sale's main intention and that is for their centres to concentrate on getting down the middle and act as targets for the forwards. Neither is creative and this curtails any chance of a swashbuckling style. Their forwards are a match for anyone but this lack of the ability, or the inclination, to cut loose when the opportunity arises is a fault.
I am not sure that the final is going to be a classic because old habits die hard, but it will be an engrossing battle and Leicester may sense that their best chance lies in the adventurous route.
Sale will not be comforted by their Twickenham record of three appearances and three defeats or that the regular-season champions have not fared well in this finale.
It cannot fail to be a massive test of character, and stamina, for two formidable teams.
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