Leeds defeat lost in debate

Sale 35 Leeds 20
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The Independent Online

The most challenging fixture of the final week of Premiership activity should have been this deeply competitive northern set-to at Heywood Road, where the bottom-feeders of Leeds fronted up against the high-altitude summiteers of Sale. But the real fun and games will be at Twickenham today if the great and good of English professional rugby find themselves accused of pandering to a self-serving and spectacularly cynical band of sporting protectionists.

The most challenging fixture of the final week of Premiership activity should have been this deeply competitive northern set-to at Heywood Road, where the bottom-feeders of Leeds fronted up against the high-altitude summiteers of Sale. But the real fun and games will be at Twickenham today if the great and good of English professional rugby find themselves accused of pandering to a self-serving and spectacularly cynical band of sporting protectionists.

There were strong suggestions yesterday that Rotherham, the National League One champions, had been refused promotion to the Premiership and that none of this season's top-flight strugglers – Leeds, Bath, Saracens, Harlequins – would be required to forfeit their élite status. The fact that a disappointed Mike Yarlett, the Rotherham owner, was the source of the rumours – much to the astonishment of his own chief executive, Jim Kilfoyle – indicated that the existing Premiership clubs had indeed succeeded in pulling up the ladder behind them.

Not for the first time in the history of the professional game in England, the relegation issue has been handled with all the transparency of a stagnant pond. The arguments over ground facilities, primacy of tenure and dozens of other criteria have been going on in secret for months, and while RFU officials intend to deliver their judgement on Rotherham's application this afternoon, it will take more than a simple announcement to dispel the smell of rat that has hung over the affair since before Christmas.

Rugby has grown accustomed to off-field politics removing the shine from the business on the field, but last night's game really was worthy of better. If Leeds knew they were safe, they must have taken acting lessons from Paul Schofield. They played as though their very livelihoods depended on victory, taking the game to Sale at a pace way above anything they generated in their recent defeats at Bath and Quins. Chris Hall, their left wing, scored an outstanding try in the sixth minute to set them on their way, and with Braam van Straaten kicking goals from distance, they were good value for their 13-12 lead at the break.

Yet Sale always looked the more dangerous. They claimed a try on either wing in the first half – the first from Anthony Elliott, who stepped inside Steve Bachop, the second from Mark Cueto after a strong run from Pete Anglesea – and when Brian Redpath ducked under the entire Leeds back row and scuttled away for a five-pointer at the start of the second period, there was little left to debate.

Sale played some terrific stuff from there on in as Jason Robinson opened up the Leeds defence from deep. Brian Kennedy, their owner, has recently taken to bemoaning the lack of local support, and with good reason: it is all the Sharks can do to pull in 4,000 spectators, despite the quality of their rugby. Maybe Kennedy will be rewarded with better when the Heineken Cup comes calling next term.

Cheshire's finest made certain of joining Leicester and Gloucester in the draw by winning the game, and claimed a bonus point into the bargain when Robinson cancelled out Japie Mulder's late try by sending Cueto in a minute from time. Leeds had done little to deserve that final smack in the face, but it could have been worse. After all, Rotherham might have made it to the Premiership.

Sale: Tries Cueto 2, Elliott, Redpath; Conversions Hodgson 3; Penalties Hodgson 3. Leeds: Tries Hall, Mulder; Conversions Van Straaten 2; Penalties Van Straaten 2.

Sale: J Robinson; M Cueto, M Shaw ( Baxendell 61), M Deane, A Elliott; C Hodgson, B Redpath (A Dickens, 79); K Yates (A Perelini, 70), C Marais (A Titterrell, 45), B Stewart (A Black, 56), I Fullarton (S Lines, 45), C Jones, A Sanderson, S Pinkerton, P Anglesea (R Wilks, 61).

Leeds: D Scarbrough; O Bartolucci (J Benson, 63), J Mulder (T Davies, 79), B V Straaten, C Hall; S Bachop, S Benton (J O'Reilly, 71); J Wring (K Fullman, 63), M Holt (M Luffman, 63), M Shelley, C Murphy, P Murphy, D Hyde (C Mather, 57), J Ponton, C Hogg.

Referee: S Lander (Liverpool).

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