London Irish 21 Sale 29: Hodgson gives a glimpse of what might have been

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The Independent Online

Charlie Hodgson turned in 80 minutes of undiluted brilliance to win this match and underline the seriousness of Sale's challenge for the Premiership title. Had he produced so much as a whiff of this world-classiness for his country at Murrayfield on Calcutta Cup day - the merest hint of a kicking game potent enough to turn the most dangerous opponents inside out, the tiniest smidgen of attacking prowess that is at once as quiet as a prayer and as powerful - we would have been spared the bedlam and babel of the last few days.

It is inconceivable that England would have fouled up in Scotland had their outside-half played anything like, and it follows that the world champions would have travelled to Paris in a much better frame of mind. Would Sir Clive Woodward have been granted so much as a mention in the public prints had the Six Nations Championship gone the way of the red rose? Probably not. But it went the way of calamity instead and as a consequence, Woodward is being touted as the new Lord High Chamberlain and Martin Johnson is being suggested as a possible manager. Why not sack the chief executive and go for Bill Gates while we're at it?

Hodgson is not solely responsible for this feeding frenzy: he did not set foot on the field in the last of England's three defeats, against Ireland, apparently because of a dodgy hamstring. (The fact that the back-room staff at Sale detected no trace of any such injury when the Lions stand-off returned to the club last week merely adds a layer of mystery to a sorry saga). All the same, Hodgson could and should have seen off the Scots in Edinburgh.

He saw off London Irish, that's for sure. His goal-kicking was perfect until Steve Hanley complicated matters by scoring two late tries at the corner flag; his punting removed the wind from the Exiles' sails just when they were threatening to score tries at a rate of knots; his courage was positively leonine - witness his capture of the ball on the floor in the build-up to the first of Hanley's finishes and the wonderful cover tackle on Delon Armitage that immediately followed. His distribution was a model of sophistication.

Sale may struggle to absorb a vicious spate of personnel setbacks ahead of this weekend's Heineken Cup quarter-final with Biarritz in San Sebastian - "We have more injured players than fit ones," groaned their director of rugby, Philippe Saint-André, as he ruled out the England prop Andrew Sheridan and raised doubts over Jason Robinson and Mark Cueto - but with Hodgson in this sort of form, they have what it takes to end Wasps' domestic hegemony. "When I see us win a game like this, I think it is possible to win a trophy," agreed Saint-André.

Saturday's match attracted almost 20,000 spectators to the Madejski Stadium. If an overwhelming majority of them do not return at the first available opportunity, they have no sense and even less soul. It was a humdinger of an encounter - fast, ferocious, as near to fabulous as makes no difference. Irish, opening up thrillingly at the instigation of their Australian coach, Brian Smith, scored three tries in the first half, the last an uncut diamond from Armitage, who took a pass one-handed behind his back, chipped Cueto and gathered to complete the deed. And in the second half? Sale scored three and pinched the points.

In truth, their tries were nowhere near as eye-catching as those of the home side, although Hanley's second had a touch of the born wing about it. But they fought like dogs, having lost Robinson and Cueto to injury. Robinson was hurt in a collision with Sailosi Tagicakibau and retired after being skinned by the Samoan a few minutes later; Cueto crashed into a Guinness advertising hoarding, thereby becoming the latest in a long line of men rendered horizontal by the Black Stuff.

"We had to change our back three so many times," said Saint-André, who also saw his makeshift wing Richard Wigglesworth smithereened by Gonzalo Tiesi's bloodcurdling tackle and Chris Mayor, a replacement for Robinson, suffer a broken hand. Wigglesworth battled on before limping off; Mayor somehow found the wherewithal to stay the course. It was committed to the point of lunacy.

That Irish contributed every bit as much reinforced the sense that they, too, are a growing force among the élite. They started the game without Faan Rautenbach, Danie Coetzee, Michael Collins, Nick Kennedy, Phil Murphy and Juan Leguizamon - a heavy fall-out in anyone's language - yet showed the best of themselves throughout, none more so than a second Hodgson, the scrum-half Paul, who played with an energy and a dynamism beyond his alleged superiors in the England team.

Perhaps inevitably, it was to red-rose matters that the after-match discussion turned. Both coaches were asked whether a return by Woodward might work the oracle. "I don't think he'd do that to Andy Robinson," said Smith, bluntly. "What Andy needs now is some space."

Saint-André declined to get involved. "Typical," said Kingsley Jones, his coaching sidekick from the Welsh heartlands. "When you ask him a question he doesn't want to answer, he can't speak English."

London Irish: Tries Tagicakibau, Flutey, Armitage; Penalties Catt 2. Sale: Tries Hanley 2, Titterrell; Conversion Hodgson. Penalties Hodgson 4.

London Irish: M Horak (T Ojo, 40); D Armitage, G Tiesi, M Catt (capt), S Tagicakibau; R Flutey, P Hodgson (B Willis, 80); N Hatley, D Paice (R Russell, 58), R Skuse, R Casey (R Strudwick, 80), K Roche, D Danaher, K Dawson, O Magne (R Thorpe, 80).

Sale: J Robinson (capt; C Mayor, 18); M Cueto (S Martens, 53), M Taylor, E Seveali'i, S Hanley; C Hodgson, R Wigglesworth (V Courrent, 76); B Coutts, A Titterrell, B Stewart (S Turner, 56), D Schofield, C Day, J White, M Lund (S Bruno, 56), C Jones.

Referee: S Davey (Sussex).