Robinson shimmy leads Sale to final as limp Leeds crushed

Sale 33 Leeds 20
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The Independent Online

On a good day, Sale play some of the most seductive rugby imaginable; on a bad day, Leeds are about as irresistible as an elderly pork pie with a sliver of denture encased in its jelly. Even in Yorkshire, sporting folk resist them in their thousands. The Tykes were given more than 3,000 tickets for this Powergen Cup semi-final at Edgeley Park - their first major semi in their history, for Pete's sake - and promptly sent 85 per cent of them back.

On a good day, Sale play some of the most seductive rugby imaginable; on a bad day, Leeds are about as irresistible as an elderly pork pie with a sliver of denture encased in its jelly. Even in Yorkshire, sporting folk resist them in their thousands. The Tykes were given more than 3,000 tickets for this Powergen Cup semi-final at Edgeley Park - their first major semi in their history, for Pete's sake - and promptly sent 85 per cent of them back.

People in the broad acres have taken to professional union in the way Geoff Boycott took to hip-hop. They refuse to touch it with a bargepole. You can see their point, especially when Leeds perform like this. On the team sheet, they looked capable of good things: there were two natural finishers on the wings in Dan Scarbrough and Diego Albanese, a balanced centre partnership featuring the side-stepping Phil Christophers and the route-one Andre Snyman, international-class tight forwards in Mark Regan and Tom Palmer, two ultra-destructive flankers in Colm Rigney and Dan Hyde. On the pitch, they amounted to nothing much.

Albanese had one of his walkabout afternoons, Snyman took the lollipop lady approach every time the outstanding Graeme Bond crossed the road into Leeds territory, Palmer's impersonation of the Invisible Man was uncanny in its accuracy. Rigney threw the odd big right-hand and Hyde was prepared to take on the world, but neither man threatened a Sale back-row trio in which Alex Sanderson and Pete Anglesea played the whole game on the front foot and Chris Jones further cemented his place in the affections of the England hierarchy with a wide-ranging display of serious quality.

The home side had it won in the twinkling of a Jason Robinson shimmy and in the flicker of a sublime pass off the left hand of Mike Hercus, who ushered Iain Fullarton in at the right corner. Two tries to the good inside 14 minutes and 19 points up at the break, Sale could have fielded their colts after the break and still booked their place at Twickenham on 17 April. Even when Scarbrough bagged a couple of second-half tries, there was no earthly prospect of an about-turn in fortunes.

"I always felt Sale had another gear they could use," admitted Phil Davies, Leeds' director of rugby. "We weren't in it at any point, and it was a rude awakening for us."

How is it, then, that Sale are the ones in strife? There was heartfelt applause from all corners when the announcer confirmed that Jim Mallinder had finally applied his thumbprint to a new coaching contract taking him through to the summer of 2007. Yet Mallinder still seems deeply unsettled. It remains to be seen how his relationship with the recently-appointed Philippe Saint-André, who will take full charge of playing affairs, pans out and he will feel more insecure still if more players follow Sanderson and Fullarton through the exit door.

Fullarton and Sanderson are heading to Saracens - Steve Diamond, a long-time sidekick of Mallinder's both as a player and a coach, is already there, a revered Sale stalwart in exile - and there is a growing belief that Matt Cairns, as good as any uncapped hooker in the country, will disappear in the same direction at the end of the season. More worrying, Bond will soon be out of contract and is said to be a target for Northampton. If he bails out, the northerners will have lost one of their crown jewels.

Sale lost Bond in the 48th minute on Saturday as he was carried off and taken to hospital with a shoulder injury. He was, however, released yesterday with the all-clear.

"It goes without saying that we didn't want to lose either Alex or Iain," Mallinder said after the game. "But they are professionals, and they are looking after their own interests."

In other words, Saracens are throwing money around like confetti - not for the first time - and with Sale in a state of flux, the lure of the pound was too great. If the side that Mallinder put together breaks up without realising its potential, English rugby will be the worse for it. Of all the teams in the Premiership, Sale play with one foot in the future.

That much was evident at the weekend. Mark Cueto and Steve Hanley threatened repeatedly in the wide areas - Hanley's finish in the left corner on the stroke of half-time was a masterpiece of directness - while Fullarton and Jones wrecked the Leeds line-out at will before covering huge swathes of ground in support of their attacking back division.

At outside-half, Hercus passed beautifully off either hand and kicked intelligently on the rare occasions Sale exhausted their running options. The fact Charlie Hodgson was not missed says everything about the way the American international has taken to life on this side of the pond.

And then there was Robinson. Operating at full-back, he treated his audience to two spellbinding runs, the first of which resulted in the opening try after seven minutes. If Matt Cardey, the poor sap charged with tackling his opposite number in horribly exposed areas of the field, spends the rest of the month staring at the video footage, he will not make the slightest sense of Robinson's freakish brilliance. Robinson's second solo raid was more breathtaking still, and was undermined only by the clumsiness of his scoring pass to Cueto, which flew straight into Row F.

"I did beat six blokes on the way upfield," he protested, when challenged over his flawed sense of distribution. "But you're right. It was a rubbish pass." Rubbish indeed, but it was still too good for Leeds.

* The Rugby Football Union has suspended Ben Cohen's England ticket allocation for the rest of the season as one of his tickets found its way to an unofficial agency. The RFU accepts that the winger did not sell the ticket for a profit, but still hold him responsible for its distribution. "I have made a genuine mistake and it's one I regret," Cohen said.

Sale: Tries Robinson, Fullarton, Hanley, Mayor; Conversions Hercus 2; Penalties Hercus 2. Drop goal Hercus. Leeds: Tries Scarbrough 2; Conversions Ross 2; Penalties Ross 2.

Sale: J Robinson; M Cueto, J Baxendell, G Bond (C Mayor 48), S Hanley (V Going 86); G Ross, R Wigglesworth; K Yates, M Cairns (A Titterrell 60), B Stewart (S Turner 60), I Fullarton (C Day 85), J White, A Sanderson, P Anglesea (capt, D Schofield 68), C Jones.

Leeds: M Cardey; D Scarbrough, P Christophers, A Snyman, D Albanese (T Davies 83); G Ross, A Dickens (C Stuart-Smith 59); M Shelley, M Regan (M Holt 68), G Kerr (G Powell 68), S Hooper, T Palmer (capt, P Murphy 83), C Rigney, D Hyde, A Popham.

Referee: D Pearson (Northumberland).

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