Sale 45 Leicester 20: Saint-André's Sale enter new era with Leicester trouncing

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The Independent Online

It is almost three years since Brian Kennedy, utterly convinced of the need to modernise the little rugby club he had bought for himself if he was to turn it into a big rugby club for everybody, took steps he knew would annoy the hell out of the local die-hards. Most significant amongst these was his decision to move to a new stadium in another town, with a new coach from another country. He was willing to back his instincts with hard cash - £9m of it at the last count - and fight his corner against those who accused him of rank heresy. At the weekend, the argument that had long been going his way was finally decided in his favour.

Did he see Sale's victory in the Guinness Premiership final - the glorious breaking of the old Leicester-Wasps duopoly, the bold affirmation of his team as a significant power in English rugby - as a personal vindication? Kennedy was as clear in his own mind as he had been in the months leading up to the switch of venue to Stockport and the recruitment of Philippe Saint-André from France. "Yes," he replied, in a tone that suggested he had been awaiting the question with relish for some considerable time.

"Traditionalists don't like change, and they had no faith in Philippe," he continued. "But I saw it as a no-brainer because I knew what he'd achieved during his time at Gloucester, and then back in France with Bourgoin. External circumstances had prevented him completing those jobs, but it was clear to me that here was a man who understood how to build winning teams.

"He surrounds himself with the right coaching support, can articulate a clear plan of action, knows how to retain harmony in the group and does what he does with a rare passion. Above all, he hates losing. The French hierarchy may come after him after next year's World Cup, but as far as I'm concerned he'll be staying here."

He had a point. In fact, he had several. Sale reached cup finals before Saint-André materialised on the rain-sodden outskirts of Manchester United land, and even enjoyed the occasional flurry of successful activity in the league, but the former Tricolore captain's iron resolve and infallible rugby instinct -an instinct rooted as much in the bestial side of French rugby as in the beautiful one, despite a playing career on the wing - has raised them to a different plane. Their performance at Twickenham could not have been delivered without him.

The weight of evidence, not to mention the weight of history, was against Sale at the weekend. No league-topping team had managed to close the deal by winning the final since the introduction of the play-off format in 2003, and with Saint-André's charges significantly affected by injury and fatigue, it was Leicester who arrived in London feeling good about themselves. To prosper against the odds, Sale needed rest and recuperation rather than intense preparation - their boss granted them both - and a slice of good fortune to go with it, which came in the shape of a downpour.

This blessed rain allowed the formidable Sale forwards to exert such complete authority in the early stages that the Leicester pack failed to raise a gallop, with the honourable exception of the flanker Lewis Moody, who performed with energetic defiance in mounting a one-man stand against the opposing tide. His King Canutism was rewarded with a try after 12 minutes, and as a result the Midlanders were in close touch at the end of the first quarter. But they would get no nearer, and did not deserve to do so. From the moment Magnus Lund, an obvious challenger to Moody on England's forthcoming trip to Australia, restored daylight between the sides after a sharp break from Richard Wigglesworth, there was no doubt as to the outcome.

Sale had the Tigers by the short and curlies, every which way. Charlie Hodgson outplayed his rival England stand-off, Andy Goode, spearheading a tactical kicking game that left Leicester's for dead and managing his back division with such assurance that his country need look no further for a No 10 capable of defending the World Cup in France next year. Wigglesworth wiggled for all he was worth in the slippery conditions - along with the equally diminutive Andy Titterrell, he made a thorough nuisance of himself - and with Lund hitting the heights alongside Jason White and Sébastien Chabal, the back-row contest proved unexpectedly one-sided.

Of the new champions' four tries, two came from toe-pokes, one from a loose Leicester pass - Austin Healey ended a top-flight career full of sound and fury that signified rather less than he appeared to believe by presenting Chris Mayor with a run-in from long distance - and the other from the outstanding attacking move of the game, which occurred on the stroke of half-time and just about buried the Tigers. Two ferocious Chabal drives sandwiched an intelligent pass from Elvis Seveali'i before Hodgson beat Ollie Smith and dummied Alesana Tuilagi to open a road to the line for Oriol Ripol. This was the freewheeling Sale of old, rooted in the new imperatives framed by Saint-André. In other words, it was perfect.

Eight years ago, Newcastle disrupted the status quo by winning the Premiership. They have not finished in the top five since. Sale, by contrast, are equipped for long-term success. "The moment we shift 8,000 season tickets, we'll guarantee ourselves a sell-out for every home game and start thinking seriously about expansion," said Kennedy. If the champions carry on like this, their owner will find himself negotiating a groundshare at Old Trafford.

Sale: J Robinson (capt); M Cueto, M Taylor (C Mayor, 71), E Seveali'i (V Courrent, 80), O Ripol; C Hodgson, R Wigglesworth (B Foden, 80); L Faure (Turner, 80), A Titterrell (S Bruno, 52), S Turner (B Stewart, 52), C Jones (Chabal, 80), I Fernandez Lobbe (D Schofield, 40), J White, M Lund, S Chabal (C Day, 70).

Leicester: G Murphy; T Varndell, O Smith (L Lloyd, 66), D Gibson, A Tuilagi (S Vesty, 46); A Goode, H Ellis (A Healey, 52); G Rowntree (M Holford, 61), G Chuter (J Buckland, 65), J White, L Cullen (J Hamilton, 56), B Kay, S Jennings (L Deacon, 50), L Moody, M Corry (capt).

Referee: D Pearson (Northumberland).

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