Leicester 35 Sale 23: Corry's Tigers win battle of heavyweights

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September is just a little early to promote a heavyweight title fight when nothing can be decided until the following May, but the two Joe Fraziers of the Premiership slugged out a contest worthy of the billing at Welford Road yesterday.

There were touches of the Muhammad Ali, too - some wondrous footwork from the Leicester wing Geordan Murphy, some bewildering sleight of hand from the supremely composed Sale and England outside-half Charlie Hodgson - but ultimately, this was about weight of punch. As so often in front of their boisterous support, the home side shaded it in the bunch-of-fives department.

It was a hard old game - unconscionably hard for this embryonic stage of the campaign. It was therefore fitting that Leicester made sure of their victory when Julian White, that pugilistic titan of the front-row fraternity, won his personal battle with the equally solid Andrew Sheridan to secure a penalty try for his side as the match moved into stoppage time.

Sheridan will not lose too much sleep, given that a yellow card shown to his fellow England international Chris Jones meant the champions were scrummaging a man short, but all the same he would have preferred to avoid the humiliation.

One way or another, the props caught the eye. Leicester gave a debut to the Italian tight-head specialist Martin Castrogiovanni, and as there was not a shirt in all Christendom wide enough to contain his name, the tailors abbreviated it to a more manageable "Castro".

There must have been a fear that he would get around the field about as quickly as the stricken Cuban leader, for the newcomer has not always set the greatest store on cardiovascular fitness. As it turned out, he performed magnificently. So magnificently, he lasted all but the last few seconds an encounter stretched over 90 exhausting minutes.

Leicester had it on their opponents at the scrum from the outset. What was more, they made monkeys of them at the line-out. Add to these unfamiliar problems for the champions the fact that their midfield defence was less than impressive in the opening quarter and it was surprising that they reached the 20-minute mark only nine points adrift.

The Tigers scored two tries in that first bout of cut, thrust and slug: Murphy, quite magical at times, claimed the first after a passionate series of assaults on the Sale line; Louis Deacon put his name on the second, crossing on the overlap at the right flag. But for Hodgson's panic-free efforts under the most intense pressure, the visitors would have been in serious strife.

It was the stand-off who poured a bucket of iced water on Leicester's ardour with a high-calibre try just shy of the half-hour mark. Sale, more settled at the scrum at this point, won clean first-phase ball to release the rapid Oriol Ripol down the left before Hodgson unstitched the home defence with the most subtle of show-and- go routines on the switchback.

The very best players achieve these things with barely a suggestion that they are doing anything remotely out of the ordinary - think John Dawes and his "dummy that never was" in the classic Barbarians try against the All Blacks at Cardiff in 1973 - and there is a strong thought now that Hodgson is operating at that rarified level.

However, it was asking far too much of him to win this one on his own. Sale lost a foundation stone when Sébastien Chabal, their piratical No 8, failed to reappear after the interval - his absence allowed Martin Corry, fit and firing after a long summer's rest, to stamp his authority on proceedings in front of the England forwards coach John Wells - and once Jones paid the inevitable price for getting on the nerves of the referee, Tony Spreadbury, there was only one conceivable outcome.

Corry, who scored from a perfectly organised rolling maul shortly after the break and repeatedly made long runs into the heart of the Sale defence, was too polite to admit it afterwards, but this was a glorious release for him. The second half of last season was one of bitter frustration for the skipper, both at club and Test levels, and it went from bad to worse, first when Sale plastered his side in the Premiership final at Twickenham, then when Andy Robinson, the England head coach, more or less ordered him to withdraw from the two-Test tour of Australia. Inevitably, the rumours started circulating that Robinson would be looking at alternative captains - and, indeed, alternative No 8s - for the forthcoming autumn internationals. On this evidence, the rumours are non-starters.

Of course, it beggars belief that the top teams in the Premiership will be able to spend the next nine months performing at this kind of velocity, which the experts insist is unsustainable. There again, the players beggar belief at every turn.

The best part of 17,000 spectators sardined their way into Welford Road for this one. The club game in this country is booming, and the Tigers have started on the "b" of that boom.

Leicester: Tries Murphy, Deacon, Corry, Penalty try; Conversions Goode 3; Penalties Goode 3. Sale: Tries Hodgson, Bruno; Conversions Hodgson 2; Penalties Hodgson 3.

Leicester: S Vesty; G Murphy, M Cornwell (D Hipkiss, 56), D Gibson, T Varndell (S Rabeni, 53); A Goode, S Bemand; A Moreno (J White, 49), G Chuter, M Castrogiovanni (Moreno, 80), J Hamilton (H Tuilagi, 51), B Kay, L Deacon, S Jennings (T Croft, 40; J Buckland, 59), M Corry (capt).

Sale: J Robinson (capt); M Cueto, C Mayor, C Bell, O Ripol (L Thomas, 80); C Hodgson, R Wigglesworth (B Foden, 74); L Faure (A Sheridan, 53), S Bruno, S Turner (B Evans, 53), C Jones, I Fernandez Lobbe (J M Fernandez Lobbe, 40), J White, M Lund, S Chabal (C Day, 40).

Referee: A Spreadbury (Somerset).