Tigers tighten grip on title

Sale 10 Leicester 20
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The Independent Online
WHAT finally counted was not so much Leicester's victory here as Bath's cliff-hanging win at the Stoop 40 minutes later. The Courage Championship will still go undecided - though with Leicester by far the firmer favourites into the final Saturday. And there Sale, who play Bath, long safe from any fears of relegation, could still play a crucial supporting role.

If the result had gone the other way here, it would have given Paul Turner, Sale's Svengali, something to write home about. There is a myth about Welsh memories, but they are certainly longer than a couple of months, and Turner was audibly upset by Leicester's last-minute penalty against them in the Pilkington Cup quarter-final in February. It was a bitter moment. Sale were leading by just one of the 12 points that Turner had kicked for them, when there was an arguable collapsed scrum decision, and John Liley had stepped up to snatch the semi-final place.

But if revenge would have been a luxury for Sale, denying it was an even greater necessity for the league leaders yesterday. And after this game even Turner had to admit that Leicester were a better side than any other they had met in the league. It was not an attractive match - it was far too nervy and tentative - but it did improve Leicester's points balance, on which the destination of the League title could still rest.

Leicester played the first half into a keen easterly wind which was bending the poplars behind the goal, and to compensate attacked with such urgency that they seemed to have been warming up on some secret training field. They got their early reward with a drop-goal by Jez Harris in the sixth minute, and then the game went generally on the defensive until nearly half-way through the second half. However, there were in truth enough handling errors by Leicester to do much of Sale's work for them, and John Liley, who had scored all Leicester's points in the teams' last meeting here, kept losing his difficult place-kicking battle with the wind.

It was the younger of the Liley brothers, Rob, the opposing full-back, who was the first to make a penalty kick count, levelling the scores in the 32nd minute. There they stayed until the break, which was a reasonable if cautiously engineered outcome fcr Leicester.

Playing with the wind, they improved on it with two penalties from John Liley in the quarter of an hour after the interval. And then, for the first time, Leicester broke out of defence, Rory Underwood breaking the Sale line and, having made for open ground, feeding the inevitably hovering Liley to score over in the corner.

That seemed to have settled it. But in the last 10 minutes, Sale fanned out twice to take Saverimutto's pass from a tapped penalty on the Leicester line, and the second time managed to get their centre, Gareth Stocks, over for a try. Rob Liley converted to make it 10-14 with seven minutes to go.

But it was Leicester who managed to squeeze two scores into this short spell - big brother John Liley kicking his third penalty, from just inside Sale's half, and Harris ending as he had begun with an even better dropped goal. All that mattered now was the news from the Stoop.

Sale: R Liley; J Mallinder (capt), J Baxendell, G Stocks, C Yates; P Turner, C Saverimutto; P Smith, S Diamond, A Smith, J Fowler, D Baldwin, D Irskine, N Ashurst, C Vyvyan.

Leicester: J Liley; S Hackney, R Robinson, S Potter, R Underwood; J Harris, A Kardooni; G Rowntree, R Cockerill, D Garforth, M Johnson, M Poole, J Wells (capt), C Tarbuck, B Drake-Lee (P. Grant, 44 min).

Referee: A Spreadbury (Somerset).