Mallinder moves from heaven in Dublin to reality in Stockport

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The Independent Online

There are many varieties of rugby heaven, but the one experienced by Jim Mallinder last weekend would be a popular choice. "You can't get much better," said Sale's head coach, "than going over to Dublin on a Friday night, winning the game and having a few pints of Guinness with all the lads and all the owners and sponsors. It was a brilliant trip."

Sale's task this afternoon, according to Mallinder, is not merely to produce a repeat performance in the return fixture at Edgeley Park, but rather something better again. The romantic merits of Stockport against the Irish capital are not the issue. Leinster, having bent the knee on their own borrowed ground of Lansdowne Road, are primed to give their English hosts a dose of the same medicine.

"I expect this game to be harder than last week," said Mallinder. "I think we shocked Leinster a little bit."

For Leinster, read the whole of Europe, who having placed the Irish province up with the likes of Toulouse, Munster and Wasps as favourites to win the Heineken Cup, suddenly had some rethinking to do. Leinster were already without their Argentinian pivot Felipe Contepomi - removed from the Heineken Cup pool stage by an administrative blunder - and lost their other golden nugget in the midfield, Brian O'Driscoll, to a hamstring injury after 20 minutes' play.

Sale, in Mallinder's words, "fielded a full set of forwards for the first time this season". And those forwards, pumped up by a derogatory assessment of their skills in the match programme, tore into their opponents. Dogged defence - notably a Little & Large combination of Bryan Redpath and Chris Jones which held up Malcolm O'Kelly's late goal-line lunge - plus a clinching dropped goal by the fit-again England fly-half Charlie Hodgson secured a headline-making 23-22 victory.

There was an extra piquancy in the success for Mallinder and his co-coach, Steve Diamond. Before the hop across the Irish Sea, Sale's owner, Brian Kennedy, had let it be known that results needed improving. By full-time, he and a couple of sponsors were reaching into their pockets to fund the celebrations. "We drove the coach to where the supporters were staying," said Mallinder, "and had a good hour with all of them before we then went into town, to some establishment whose name I cannot remember."

But Kennedy's comments have not been glossed over entirely. "Brian made the point that we need to do better," said Mallinder, whose team are seventh in the Premiership, "and he can make that point, as an owner. He's come on record since to say he has given us his confidence. It's common knowledge that Steve and I are out of contract at the end of the season, and hopefully we can negotiate and get things sorted out. This is when people begin to make moves. It would be nice to sort things out."

Ironically, many of the pundits whose fancy for Leinster took such a jolt had tipped Sale for top place in the Premiership at the season's outset, on the back of second and fourth finishes in 2002 and 2003. Instead, World Cup calls and injuries left Mallinder not knowing where his next team selection was coming from.

"It has been very frustrating," he said. "You set out with a certain style that you want to play but sometimes, with the personnel you've got, your gameplan is limited.

"The strength of the partnership between Redpath and Hodgson is speed of ball, and we have got a good, quick line-out, and can move the ball quickly out wide from set-piece. But when other players have been there, we've not necessarily had that speed, and we've had to look to do other things."

In December's Heineken Cup openers, Sale beat Cardiff at home and lost heavily in Biarritz. This week's regroup-ing has seen Leinster facing suggestions in the Irish press of "choking" (harking back to last season's semi-final defeat at home to Perpignan).

Meanwhile, Mallinder juggled with the familiar jigsaw of selection. The front row is denuded of two potential England stars - the bullocking prop Andy Sheridan has a shoulder injury, and hooker Andy Titterrell starts a six-week ban for stamping on Eric Miller in Dublin. Kevin Yates and Matt Cairns step in.

From apparently living on the edge, Mallinder will take his place at Edgeley Park today among possibly the second 10,500 sell-out since Kennedy's takeover of Stockport County FC last summer. The Heineken is dipping into parts of the Mancunian economy that Sale's old home, Heywood Road, could not reach. "We've improved on last season's European performance already," Mallinder said, wryly referring to a debut campaign of one win and five losses, "and we want to make progress on that."

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