Turner is priceless for Sale

RUGBY UNION: Quins' championship hopes put in perspective by a side dependent on a Welshman who gets better with age
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After the trumpery that has passed for high-level rugby in England thus far this season, it is a contradictory sort of pleasure to give praise and thanks to the Welshman who presided over the termination of Harlequins' unbeaten record.

Whether Paul Turner's exquisitely crafted version of rugby is an admonition to the land of his birth or his domicile is a nice point but suffice to say that Sale are deriving a handsome benefit from their play-making player-coach that Wales never did and England never will.

It would be inequitable to suppose Sale's 29-11 victory at Heywood Road was down to Turner, not when Rob Liley was contributing 19 of the points, but on the other hand it is fair to feel they might well have lost without him. And that makes his continuing presence at a ripe age when others have retreated to the bar or, in some cases, the press box both an asset and a liability.

Sale's own publicity material unkindly gives their outside-half as 37, though a yellowing match programme for Wales v England 1989 (Wales won 12-9) makes him two years younger and but for the severity of his new haircut he would not look his age, however advanced. For years he has had a chronic groin condition. He is indispensable.

Or at any rate as indispensable to Sale as any one man could be, and even put like that it is a problem. Turner is nurturing Rob Liley, brother of Leicester's John, to be his own successor. But after starting the season at stand-off in Turner's absence, the younger Liley was then moved to full-back and on Saturday was stuck out on the wing when Jim Mallinder, the captain, in effect pulled rank and himself reverted to full-back.

This is not the way to take a young man's fancy - as Turner, at least 10 years Liley's senior, knows. But league rugby, as this season has balefully shown, is firstly about the here and now and as long as Turner can haul his thirtysomething limbs around the stockbroker suburbs of Manchester, Liley's lot is liable to be frustration.

"The side need an authoritative figure at half-back," Turner explained. "The half-backs have tended to play well only when the side play well, whereas a quality half-back drags the side through when they're not playing well. But Rob is progressing and is a fine footballer."

Point taken. The range of Turner's options, whether passing or kicking, is breathtaking, wider than that of any other outside-half in Europe and even, you could sensibly argue, the entire world. "I can't work myself out sometimes," he said. Imagine, then, how his team-mates cope; if their thought processes matched his, Sale, a good side anyway and substantially under-represented representatively, would be real contenders.

For now they must rest content with beginning the move away from the First Division's danger zone and also, as a byproduct, with turning Harlequins into less viable contenders than they had previously seemed - though afterwards even the most ardent Quin was accepting that their position up there with Bath had never been that realistic after all. They have dropped to third.

"We were pleasantly surprised to have won five in a row," said Simon Halliday, the ex-Bath (and Harlequins) centre who has joined Quins' coaching team. "Now you know why we were surprised." Specifically, Quins won insufficient ball at the line-out and were hustled into an unconsidered and occasionally over-ambitious style of rugby out of keeping with the pressure they were under.

This is not a complaint - certainly not, when ambition has been stifled at every turn this season - so much as a statement that when Quins, unimpressive in scraping through the preceding games against the lowly Saracens and West Hartlepool, actually had to go out and win a match for themselves they could not do so.

Instead, they went out and lost it big-time. Rob Kitchin's kick was charged down by Dave Baldwin and regathered by Christian Saverimutto, who gave Baldwin a reward for his line-out distinction with Sale's first try. Later, a David Pears grub-kick stood up conveniently not for a Harlequin for Neil Ashurst who, because the kick had been executed in an unlikely defensive position, found himself in the clear.

Quins eventually broke Sale's obdurate defence with Jim Staples's late (too late) try but the point sardonically made by Keith Richardson, the Quins coach, that his team had in fact created all three tries was self-criticism rather than sour grapes. "To be fair, we got stuffed," he added.

And how. This game did more for Will Carling - because he did not play and was seen to be needed - than for any of Harlequins' other England pretenders. Pears, in particular, did not enjoy favourable comparison with Turner and, if Jack Rowell cares to know, the Welshman once said he had grandparents from Warminster, Wiltshire.

All right, it's too late now, though Hugo Porta, the great Argentine stand-off, was still playing international rugby at 39. As it happens, Turner is a far steadier and more reliable player - if, praise be, no more predictable - than he was when he was in his pomp back home with Newbridge.

Keith Westwood, Turner's coach in those distant days, used to say he knew his man was about to have a stinker whenever he produced some dazzling trickery at the start, whereas an early blunder would portend a blinder. No longer - but he remains, now as then, a prophet without honour in his own country.

Sale: Tries Baldwin, Ashurst; Conversions Liley 2; Penalties Liley 5. Harlequins: Try Staples; Penalties Pears 2.

Sale: J Mallinder (capt); R Liley, J Baxendell, G Higginbottom, C Yates; P Turner, C Saverimutto; A Yates, S Diamond, A Smith, J Fowler, D Baldwin, D Erskine (A MacFarlane, 60), P Hewitt, N Ashurst.

Harlequins: J Staples; D O'Leary, W Greenwood, P Mensah, S Bromley; D Pears, R Kitchin (capt); S Brown, B Moore, A Mullins, M Watson, P Thresher, G Allison (A Snow, 21-32), C Sheasby, R Jenkins.

Referee: S Lander (Irby).