London Irish could be suspended from the Gallagher Premiership as speculation continues to rage about their future amid a possible takeover by an American consortium.

The Rugby Football Union says that, along with Premiership Rugby and the Rugby Players’ Association, it is “seeking to take action to obtain greater clarity on the future of London Irish”.

The RFU said: “The proposed takeover of London Irish by an American consortium has led to a significant amount of uncertainty and speculation about the future of the club, which is having an impact on players, staff and fans of the club.

“It is imperative that the club will be in a position to take its place in the Gallagher Premiership in season 2023-24 and to complete that season.”

A deadline of May 30 has now been set by the RFU in what is an increasingly grim saga, with Irish having reported debts of £30milliom.

By that time, a takeover of the club must have been completed and approved by the RFU, with the buyers undertaking to provide all required working capital to meet the club’s obligations for at least next season, or the club showing that it will continue to be funded to operate throughout next season.

The RFU added: “If the club fails to meet these conditions, it will be suspended from participating in the Premiership (and other competitions) in season 2023-24 to avoid a scenario where the club enters insolvency mid-season, with the corresponding and substantial impact that has on players, staff and fans, as well as on the remainder of the league.

“This deadline was set to give enough time for the buyers to provide the information needed and for the transaction to complete.”

Wasps and Worcester entered administration earlier this season, resulting in their expulsion from the Premiership.

It meant the Premiership dropping to 11 clubs, with the most fraught campaign in English domestic rugby history reaching its conclusion on May 27 when Saracens and Sale Sharks contest the final at Twickenham.

Irish, meanwhile, narrowly missed out on a place in the title play-offs, finishing fifth, three points behind Northampton.

Sale Sharks boss Alex Sanderson says he is “super proud” that his Gallagher Premiership finalists are flying the flag for rugby union in the north of England.

And Sanderson believes a sold-out AJ Bell Stadium that provided an inspired soundtrack to Sale’s pulsating play-off victory over Leicester must be viewed as just the start of their journey.

Sale play within 23 miles of five Super League clubs – Salford, Leigh, St Helens, Warrington and Wigan – while Old Trafford is just four miles down the road and Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium only a further five miles away.

It represents a congested sporting picture, but Sale have put themselves firmly on the map by reaching a first Premiership final for 17 years, with Saracens awaiting them at Twickenham on May 27.

“My job is to get them (players) to perform and play well at the weekend – that is my first priority – but there are many different hats to wear,” Sanderson said.

“And I am so proud of the fact that, potentially, our reach in the north is expanding.

“There are bigger crowds coming and the buzz is better. It’s busier, it’s a ‘Brucie bonus’. It is a humbling addition to the role in that you might be inspiring some kid to pick up a ball.

“I remember The North playing New Zealand when I was a kid. You know what I mean? Right now, we are flying the flag, and yes, I am super proud of that.

“I can’t talk too much about it because I start to cry and get too emotional.

“To come home, to this team – the team I played for and captained, that my brother played for, that my dad played against – it’s a bit of a dream.

“It feels like the start. I’m pumped, but I will think about the future in two weeks’ time. We have got a job to do before then.”

Sale fly-half George Ford, who played for Leicester when they defeated Saracens in the final a year ago, mirrors Sanderson’s view on building a northern stronghold.

Oldham-born Ford has won more than 80 England caps, playing on many of the sport’s biggest stages, and he is enthused by Sale’s future – on and off the pitch.

Ford said: “We speak about it all the time in that one of our reasons why is to make the people up here proud and interested in rugby union.

“To come out and support us, but more importantly for the kids to come out and pick up a rugby ball and start playing up here.

“It is obviously challenging with football and rugby league, but we are doing our utmost to have an effect on these young kids.

“Rugby union up here has got its challenges, as we all know. All we can do as a club is perform well, try to win games, fill the place out and try to entertain these people, give them a winning team that care and compete.

“We want to inspire the kids as well. The amount of kids you saw out there with smiles on their faces – ultimately, that’s what it is about.

“When we have finished and are long gone from the game, they are the people that will come in and take the game forward.

“If we can inspire kids to come and play up here – northern lads playing for Sale – that is what we want.”

International rugby league is facing an uncertain future after France announced its decision to withdraw from hosting the 2025 World Cup, citing its inability to meet financial guarantees required by the French government.

The move, which affects the men’s, women’s and wheelchair tournaments, has left the international game’s governing body, the IRL, scrabbling to consider other “contingency options” in order to ensure the continuation of the event.

However, those options do not include England, as following up its successful staging of the delayed 2021 tournament last year is seen as unfeasible given the short notice and level of finance required, the PA news agency understands.

IRL chief Troy Grant described the move as “very disappointing”, adding: “I respect the French Government’s decision amid the challenges they are facing but I can’t hide my disappointment, that I conveyed clearly to them in person.

“Despite our focus having been on France, we will now accelerate our consideration of other contingency options.”

The most obvious – and perhaps only remaining – option is to stage the tournament in Australia or New Zealand, although even this would be likely to require at least a one-year delay for logistical reasons.

RFL chairman Simon Johnson, who is also an IRL board member, said: “After the success of last autumn’s Rugby League World Cup in England, it is imperative that all in the sport now work with International Rugby League to rebuild the international calendar, for men’s, women’s and wheelchair rugby league.

“We are excited about the prospect of England men hosting Tonga in a three-Test series this autumn, with announcements to follow soon of fixtures for our women’s and wheelchair teams, and discussions already advanced regarding another home series in 2024.”

Rumours of French financial difficulties surfaced earlier this year, and enthusiasm for seeing through the project was hardly bolstered by last month’s double international in Warrington, in which both the French men’s and women’s teams were beaten 64-0 by England in back-to-back landslides.

The move also comes at an embarrassing time for the sport, whose “strategic partner” IMG has underscored the importance of the international fixture list as a cornerstone of its vision to “reimagine” the sport worldwide.

England are close to confirming a series against Samoa, who inflicted an agonising semi-final defeat at the Emirates Stadium last year, in 2024, but the women’s squad have fewer options with only a prospective Test against Wales on the agenda for later in 2023.

And the news will come as a particular blow to the wheelchair game, given France’s record of reaching the last three finals, including their narrow defeat to England last year.

Sale Sharks boss Alex Sanderson hailed George Ford as “a little pocket of calm amid the chaos” after his team reached a first Gallagher Premiership final for 17 years.

England international fly-half Ford was a dominant presence, guiding Sale home against his former club Leicester in an absorbing play-off clash at a sold-out AJ Bell Stadium.

Ford, who went off injured in last season’s Premiership final when Leicester beat Saracens – Sale’s opponents at Twickenham on May 27 – kicked three penalties and a conversion.

But he also epitomised Sale’s resilient attitude against a Tigers team that pushed them all the way before going down to a 21-13 defeat.

“They are a special group, these boys. They had to drink deep from the well today,” Sale rugby director Sanderson said.

“They stuck to the task, and George Ford drove that – a little pocket of calm amid the chaos.

“You need to be physically up to the task, you need a heart, you have really got to want it. What more can you ask for?

“I am proud of how they stuck at it and just got better at the basics as the game went on.”

Sale now face Saracens in pursuit of a Premiership crown that they last claimed when players like Jason Robinson, Charlie Hodgson and Sebastien Chabal ruled the roost.

And for Sanderson that means preparing a team to try and beat a club he spent several successful seasons with as an integral part of Mark McCall’s coaching staff.

Sale, though, look set to be without captain Ben Curry, who was carried off during the first half after suffering a hamstring injury.

Sanderson added: “He will get a scan tomorrow. He is on crutches and he got carried off. We will see tomorrow, but I doubt if he will make the final.

“I spent the major part of my life down there with those guys (at Saracens), but I am so engrained in this here that it feels like I have been here forever. It adds a little bit more spice.”

Wings Tom Roebuck and Arron Reed scored tries for Sale, but Leicester held a 13-10 lead with 24 minutes left before the Ford-inspired Sharks turned things their way.

A battling Leicester performance delivered a second-half try for wing Harry Potter, plus eight points from the boot of 39-year-old Jimmy Gopperth, who was a late replacement for World Cup-winning South African fly-half Handre Pollard.

Tigers’ interim head coach Richard Wigglesworth will join the England set-up of his former Leicester boss Steve Borthwick this summer, and a second successive Premiership final appearance proved just beyond the east Midlanders.

Wigglesworth said: “It was a close game, small margins. We just couldn’t find the advantage to tip it in our favour.

“We stuck in the contest, and we can’t fault the spirit and fight in the group.

“I am incredibly proud to have been asked to lead this group. I am so grateful for how they (Leicester) have treated me.”

And on Pollard’s absence, he added: “We only made that call this morning.

“Handre hadn’t trained for the last couple of training days. It was a calf issue, which is incredibly painful, but it can also clear up at a moment’s notice.”

Saracens may have broadened their horizons in attack this season but Owen Farrell insists they have always played with greater adventure than given credit for.

One victory separates Saracens from a sixth Gallagher Premiership title after they crushed Northampton 38-15 in Saturday’s semi-final at StoneX Stadium.

Director of rugby Mark McCall described it as “our strongest defensive performance for years”, but it is in their willingness to attack that the club have evolved most significantly.

Frustrated by last season’s defeat to Leicester in the Premiership final, they resolved to show more ambition for 2022-23 and have flourished as a consequence with only Saints scoring more tries in the regular season.

Farrell has been at the heart of the buccaneering with assistance from Alex Goode and Elliot Daly, but England’s captain denies that it is a radical change in direction for Saracens.

“There was always a perception about us before – and at times rightly so – that we were this team that just strangled teams and kicked everything,” Farrell said.

“But if you look back, in some of the finals we had against Exeter and Clermont, we played rugby.

“People were talking as if we didn’t play rugby, as if we just kicked everything and used the driving maul. I don’t know how people thought we won games, but we played rugby.

“We would have patches of it during the season and then go back to fundamentals.

“We were trying to bring more of it out and the bits that we showed in the past before have showed us that we were ready for doing more of it. It felt like we were ready to do it, so that’s why we did.

“We’ve come from a place – and rightly so – that was built on solid foundations: a good kicking game and defence. And attack came off the back of that.

“That started a long time ago, even before I left school. That served us unbelievably well. I just feel we’ve been ready for a bigger jump this year.

“The key thing has been to take that into the bigger games and I’m glad we did that against Northampton.”

Farrell and Goode were the catalysts for Saracens’ dynamism against Saints, pulling the strings in a dazzling start to the play-off.

“It’s about picking our heads up and looking to see if it’s on. There’s obviously a percentage of how on it is. If it’s properly on we want to take it,” Farrell said.

“If we think we can take metres to score a try, get to halfway rather than kick it there, then that’s a chance that we want to take.

“We want to take obvious chances and we don’t want to be half in, half out. We don’t want to be indecisive. We want to be decisive.”

Sale Sharks reached their first Gallagher Premiership final for 17 years as they ended Leicester’s hopes of back-to-back titles with a 21-13 victory at the AJ Bell Stadium.

Alex Sanderson’s team will meet his former club Saracens at Twickenham on May 27 in pursuit of a Premiership crown that Sale last claimed when players like Jason Robinson, Charlie Hodgson and Sebastien Chabal ruled the roost.

After finishing 10 points above Leicester during the regular league season, Sale were pushed all the way by Tigers in an absorbing encounter.

Former Leicester fly-half George Ford played a key role in Leicester’s downfall, kicking three penalties and a conversion, while wings Tom Roebuck and Arron Reed claimed tries.

Sale overcame the sight of their captain Ben Curry being carried off injured, and they withstood a resilient Leicester effort that saw a try for wing Harry Potter, plus eight points from the boot of Jimmy Gopperth.

But Leicester will also curse themselves for twice ruining promising late attacking platforms through wayward kicks to touch that prevented attacking lineouts.

Sale showed five changes from their final regular season game against Newcastle, with Gus Warr, Simon McIntyre, Nick Schonert, Akker van der Merwe and Tom Curry all returning for the sold-out clash.

Leicester welcomed back the likes of Freddie Steward and Anthony Watson, but they suffered an injury blow when fly-half Handre Pollard was ruled out, being replaced by 39-year-old Gopperth.

The New Zealander missed a gilt-edged chance to put Leicester ahead when he drifted a close-range penalty wide, but he made amends three minutes later as Tigers moved in front.

Sale’s indiscipline surfaced early on, and Gopperth found his range again, this time from 48 metres to make it 6-0.

The game had a relentless pace to it, and it went up a gear when Sale found their rhythm, probing for gaps through adventurous running from Reed and full-back Joe Carpenter, while England centre Manu Tuilagi also made his presence felt.

Sale were a threat when they were able to put width on their possession, and Roebuck finished off a flowing move before Ford added a touchline conversion as Leicester fell behind.

The Sharks then suffered a major blow when Curry departed the action after suffering a suspected knee injury as Leicester attacked on Sale’s 22. He was replaced by Dan du Preez.

Curry received a standing ovation as he left the action, but he was soon able to watch from the sidelines, with Sharks exerting sustained pressure inside Tigers’ 22.

And Tigers’ cause was not helped when their England prop Dan Cole received a yellow card from Wayne Barnes following a high challenge on Van der Merwe.

Leicester then lost scrum-half Ben Youngs for a head injury assessment after he halted Sale centre Rob du Preez’s charge for the corner, and Tigers’ defence held firm, with Sale taking a 7-6 lead into half-time.

Youngs did not reappear for the second period – fellow England international Jack van Poortvliet took over from him – while Sanderson made early use of the replacements’ bench, sending on props Bevan Rodd and Coenie Oosthuizen.

A successful Ford penalty from just inside’s Leicester’s half opened up a four-point gap, yet the Tigers went back in front seven minutes later when centre Dan Kelly’s long pass sent Potter scampering over, with Gopperth converting.

A Ford penalty then tied the contest at 13-13 with 22 minutes left, and then he turned provider, creating space in midfield, and although his pass to Reed hit the ground, the wing finished brilliantly.

Reed was quickly at it again, breaking clear from inside his own half before firing the ball to replacement scrum-half Raffi Quirke, but the pass was rightly adjudged forward by Barnes.

Ford, who was a dominant figure during the closing quarter, then kicked a long-range penalty that left Tigers eight points behind as their title grip was prised away.

Saracens triumphed 21-9 over Racing 92 to win the European Champions Cup final on this day in 2016.

Victory saw Saracens become the first English club to win the continent’s premier club competition since Wasps were crowned champions in 2007.

Saracens’ success came after they had lost twice in the semi-finals and once in the final during the previous three years.

They became the first team to win all of their nine games in the competition after Owen Farrell’s seven penalties steered them to a maiden title in Lyon.

Johan Goosen replied with three penalties for Racing, but the loss of New Zealand fly-half Dan Carter to injury early in the second half dealt a huge blow to the French side as he joined Maxime Machenaud on the sidelines.

The final proved an often ugly encounter, with neither side really threatening to score a try, but that would not worry Saracens as they ground out victory.

The teams traded penalties before Machenaud was forced off by a concussion in the 22nd minute, and Farrell kicked Saracens into a 9-3 half-time lead.

Carter, who had looked below his best, was then forced off early into the second half and Saracens continued to pull away.

“We have had big disappointments, but each time we have come back stronger and we are happy to have finally done it,” said man-of-the-match Maro Itoje.

“We knew this was a game we could win, we had the form coming into the game. We knew if we do what we do, dominate the gain line, then we could win. We will enjoy tonight and build on from there.”

Saracens lifted the trophy again 12 months later with a 28-17 victory over Clermont, then again in 2019 by beating Leinster 20-10.

Saracens surged into the Gallagher Premiership final but their 38-15 victory over Northampton was tinged with controversy after Sean Maitland plundered two tries having escaped an early card.

Last season’s runners-up were irresistible for long spells of a one-sided play-off at StoneX Stadium as they set up a Twickenham showdown with either champions Leicester or Sale, who meet on Sunday.

But Northampton will feel aggrieved that Maitland was not at least sin-binned for clattering into George Furbank with his elbows during an aerial collision that left the England back needing lengthy treatment.

Referee Karl Dickson issued only a penalty and in making a quick decision declined to consult the TMO with the game just 25 seconds old.

To rub salt into the wound, Maitland scored Saracens’ opening two tries as part of an unstoppable first half that produced a 21-3 lead which was only briefly threatened when Northampton fought back in the third quarter.

A penalty try and Max Malins’ touchdown shut the door on the possibility of an upset and Saints, who barely fired a shot before the break, were well beaten by opponents seeking a sixth Premiership title.

Scrum-half Ivan van Zyl was named man of the match but Alex Goode could easily have been chosen given his influence in the opening stages.

When Northampton attacked and were turned over, Goode launched a stunning counter-attack given pace by Maitland but Alex Lozowski lacked the speed to finish the move.

Goode’s vision was on display again in the seventh minute when he chipped through for Maitland to score, but it was a good afternoon to be pulling the strings with Saracens dominating the gainline.

Maitland was over again in the 23rd minute after sustained pressure ended with Farrell producing a precision grubber for the Scotland wing to touch down.

Any time Northampton got the ball they were hammered backwards in the tackle but they could only blame themselves for the next try as having conceded a penalty, they switched off to allow the quick-thinking Van Zyl to tap and go for an easy run-in.

Saracens led 21-3 on the half-hour mark and when faced with a rare assault on their line they rolled up their sleeves and sent Saints packing.

Nick Tompkins’ turnover shortly after the interval typified their resolve in defence and the third quarter was harder work, with Northampton showing the fire that had been missing in the first half.

Alex Mitchell skipped over in the 56th minute and Saints engineered a superb try soon after when stylish play ended with Courtney Lawes sending James Ramm over.

But the comeback was over when Saracens’ maul forced a penalty try that also saw Tom James sent to the sin-bin, before Malins completed the rout. Sarries’ Maro Itoje was yellow-carded late on.

Sale Sharks boss Alex Sanderson expects reigning Gallagher Premiership champions Leicester to have “steam coming out of the ears” in Sunday’s play-off clash.

Sale have not reached English rugby’s domestic showpiece final since 2006, when Jason Robinson was captain and fly-half Charlie Hodgson scored 23 points in a 45-20 demolition of the Tigers at Twickenham.

Leicester, though, are regular visitors. In the 17 years since Sale were last there, Tigers can reflect on eight appearances and five title triumphs.

But they will arrive at the AJ Bell Stadium as outsiders, having finished 10 points behind Sale during the regular Premiership season and conceding 40 points on their last league trip to Greater Manchester in December.

“I dare say they are going to be frothing at the mouth, steam coming out of the ears, fire and brimstone,” Sanderson said.

“We’ve beaten them twice (this season), and I have heard that they want to play us. If someone had beaten me twice, I would want to play them.”

Current Leicester head coach Richard Wigglesworth was the Sale scrum-half against Tigers in the 2006 final, and he is now tasked with plotting Sharks’ downfall.

“I consider him a good friend,” Sanderson added. “There is probably no-one in the Premiership who knows me better or who I know better.

“What I am going after in his team, he is probably going after in ours.”

Sale welcome back the likes of Tom Curry and Nick Schonert, but Leicester wing Chris Ashton, who avoided a ban when he appeared before disciplinary chiefs on Thursday after being sent off last weekend, has not made Tigers’ matchday 23, with four changes seeing Freddie Steward, Anthony Watson, Matt Scott and George Martin all starting.

Wigglesworth said: “Their home record is impressive – it has been a big talking point out of the club all season.

“What they want to do in the north for the game and to have only lost a couple of games in all competitions at the AJ Bell is something that they take great pride in.

“It hasn’t been a happy hunting ground for us for a long time, having not won there in more than five years.

“Being the away side in a semi-final is tough enough, but it is a challenge we are looking forward to taking on.”

Saracens are aiming for a fifth Premiership crown during the past nine seasons, and they host Northampton on Saturday.

Mark McCall’s men were beaten by Leicester in the final a year ago, edged out 15-12 by Freddie Burns’ drop-goal during the dying seconds.

“It is tough to lose any final,” Saracens and England fly-half Owen Farrell said.

“We felt like we didn’t put the best of us out on that day, and that is a credit to Leicester and what they did.

“It is up to us to make the most of it. We are excited for the semi-final.”

England international Elliot Daly will continue his comeback from injury on the Saracens’ bench, while wing James Ramm returns for Northampton and Courtney Lawes makes a Saints-record 165th Premiership start.

Northampton head coach Sam Vesty said: “They are a very good team, and it will take us playing well and playing well for long periods of time.

“I think if we do that we will win, and if we don’t or only play well in patches, then it will be tough as they are a very strong outfit.”

Chris Ashton has been cleared for Leicester’s Gallagher Premiership play-off semi-final against Sale after his red card was reduced to a yellow following a disciplinary hearing.

The 36-year-old former England wing was sent off for a high tackle on Harlequins’ Cadan Murley during Leicester’s 20-17 defeat on the final day of the regular league season.

Ashton, the Premiership’s record try-scorer, is set to retire at the end of the campaign, but if the suspension had been upheld, his hopes of featuring in a potential Premiership final at Twickenham on May 27 would have been over.

An independent disciplinary panel heard the appeal, which lasted five hours during which numerous angles of the tackle were shown, many having been not available to the referee and the match officials at the game. Ashton and Murley also gave evidence.

Panel chair Gareth Graham said: “Mr Ashton accepted committing an act of foul play that would have merited a yellow card.

“Having seen and heard all the evidence, including that of Mr Murley, who gave a clear account as to the point of contact and the level of force involved in the tackle, the panel agreed with the submission that this was a yellow card offence.”

The panel also considered what the degree of danger was in the tackle, concluding there was indirect contact to the head and that any force to the head or neck was low.

Graham added in a statement: “Consequently, the panel concluded that there was not a high degree of danger and that the correct starting point under the Head Contact Process was a yellow card.

“Therefore, the panel found the charge not proven. Mr Ashton is thereby able to play with immediate effect.”

Ollie Lawrence hopes to one day return to a rebuilt Worcester after dedicating his Gallagher Premiership player of the season award to his former Warriors team-mates.

Lawrence’s blockbusting form following his October move to Bath led to an England recall before helping his new club climb the table and qualify for the Heineken Champions Cup on the final day of the regular campaign.

The 23-year-old centre returned from an end-of-season social in Lisbon to be recognised at Premiership Rugby’s annual dinner in central London after a panel of experts judged him to be the league’s best player of 2022-23.

But having spent several days with Bath in Portugal, it was his former colleagues at Worcester who occupied his thoughts as he reflected on his award.

The Warriors went into administration in September due to unpaid debts, triggering their relegation from the Premiership, and their new owners have been blocked from relaunching the club in the Championship, ushering in an uncertain future.

Not all squad members have been able to secure contracts elsewhere, but Lawrence has gone on to make waves at the Recreation Ground.

“Without the Worcester players I wouldn’t have won the award and I wouldn’t be at Bath, so I want to thank them. This is on behalf of those boys as well,” Lawrence said.


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“A huge thanks goes to Bath for managing to get me on board as quickly as they did. And also for the Worcester boys, it’s a big thing for me to represent them. Hopefully one day I can play with them again and play again in front of those fans.


“In general, this year I’ve had to pinch myself sometimes to remember where I’ve come from.

“That desperation knowing that I could have not had a job – some of my best mates still don’t now – makes this pretty special. It’s been pretty surreal. I feel incredibly fortunate.

“But I’ll keep two feet on the ground and just enjoy myself and hopefully go again next season.”

The bonds between the players whose worlds came crashing down eight months ago remain strong and a group of them are heading to Barcelona for a stag do this weakened.

Once that is done, Lawrence’s aim is to ensure he is in the best possible shape for England’s World Cup training camp after Steve Borthwick issued strict instructions on their conditioning.

“Steve has said to the players to make sure you’re fit going into these camps instead of using the camps to get fit,” he said.

“My focus over the next five weeks is to get as fit as possible, train as much as I can and try to get a week abroad somewhere.”

Australia coach Eddie Jones said he is ready to launch a “smash and grab” campaign to win the Rugby World Cup and Bledisloe Cup after confirming his coaching team.

Jones, who took over the Wallabies in January after being sacked by England the previous month, has named Brad Davis as his attack coach with former Australian internationals Dan Palmer and Berrick Barnes also joining the staff.

“We believe we have a quality coaching staff to plan and prepare the team for a smash and grab campaign, winning the Bledisloe Cup and finishing by winning the Rugby World Cup,” Jones said, who took England to the world cup final in 2019.

“It is experience, diverse and adaptable.”

Former rugby league player Davis coached at London Irish this season having previously worked with Bath, Wasps and Ospreys.

Ex-Wallaby prop Palmer, an assistant coach at ACT Brumbies, will work as lineout coach alongside Neal Hatley, who was named forwards co-ordinator earlier this year.

Former England scrum coach Hatley will join up with the Wallabies after finishing the season with Premiership side Bath.

Barnes, who won 51 caps for Australia as an outside-half, will work as a part-time kicking consultant with former Castres boss Pierre-Henry Broncan appointed as a maul consultant and Jon Clarke leading the strength and conditioning team – a role he filled with England.

Australia kick off their Rugby Championship campaign against South Africa in Pretoria on July 8.

England centre Ollie Lawrence has been named Gallagher Premiership player of the year at the end of a season that saw him emerge from Worcester’s financial ruin to make an impact at Bath.

Lawrence found a new home at the Recreation Ground in October after the Warriors were placed into administration and he took the opportunity to revitalise a career that had been troubled by injury.

Not only did the 23-year-old help Bath qualify for the Heineken Champions Cup, his powerful running saw him recalled by England and he was a mainstay of their midfield during the Six Nations.

He beat fellow nominees Owen Farrell, Jasper Wiese and Robert du Preez to win an award that was decided by experts of the game and presented at Premiership Rugby’s awards dinner in central London.

Breakthrough player of the season went to London Irish’s Tom Pearson, the 23-year-old back row who is pressing hard for England selection.

Saracens’ Mark McCall took the director of rugby of the season award after guiding his team into the Premiership play-offs by finishing top of the table in the regular season.

Joy Neville will make rugby union history in France later this year when she becomes the first woman to officiate at a men’s World Cup.

The Irish referee has been included among seven television match officials for the tournament.

Neville, 39, controlled the 2017 Women’s Rugby World Cup final between England and New Zealand in Belfast.

Wayne Barnes, meanwhile, will lead a four-strong contingent of English officials among the 12 referees selected.

Barnes has controlled a world-best 102 Tests and will officiate in a fifth successive World Cup, having made his tournament bow during the 2007 staging.

He is joined by Luke Pearce, Matthew Carley and Karl Dickson, with Carley and Dickson making their World Cup refereeing debuts.

The group of referees announced by World Rugby also includes Irishman Andrew Brace and Nika Amashukeli, who becomes the first Georgian to officiate at a World Cup, with England’s Christophe Ridley and Welshman Craig Evans chosen among seven assistant referees.

“The journey to Rugby World Cup 2023 is not an easy one for match officials,” World Rugby high performance 15s match official manager Joel Jutge said.

“There are fewer roles with as much public scrutiny, but I am proud of how the team has responded to the ups and downs, always being open and acting with integrity.

“Selection is one milestone, and we have a lot of work to do before the start of the tournament with warm-up matches and the Rugby Championship.

“But this team has a great work ethic, an unwavering spirit and a great bond, and we will all benefit from increased time together as we prepare for what will be a very special Rugby World Cup 2023 in France.”

The tournament kicks off on September 8 when France host New Zealand in Paris.

Alex Sanderson has described Sunday’s play-off clash against Leicester as “a game of grand magnitude” as Sale Sharks target a first Gallagher Premiership final appearance since 2006.

Sale beat Leicester 45-20 at Twickenham 17 years ago, helped on their way by 23 points from fly-half Charlie Hodgson, while captain Jason Robinson became the first player to win Grand Finals in both rugby codes.

The Sharks have featured in just one play-off occasion since that season, though, shipping 40 points against Exeter in 2021.

Standing in Sale’s way at a sold-out AJ Bell Stadium this weekend and a return to English rugby headquarters are the reigning Premiership champions.

When the clubs last met in Greater Manchester Sale ran out 40-5 winners, while Sharks finished second behind Saracens across the regular domestic season.

“Thankfully, this isn’t our first rodeo of recent times with this group,” Sale rugby director Sanderson said.

“We have learnt from two years ago how to manage these kind of moments better.

“It is a game of grand magnitude which we are looking to enjoy and embrace, not to be overwhelmed by. That is the challenge.

“Our excitement exists within this bubble. You don’t want to talk about the further reach because it can become overwhelming, as it did two years ago.

“You have to stick to process while being aware of the buzz around. It has been really, really busy around the ground and there is lots going on this weekend.

“We feel the support more than we ever have done. We have just got to come back to what has been working well for us, which is communicating well and training hard.”

It is difficult to under-estimate the drive that Sale have taken from their play-off loss against Exeter two years ago.

Had they beaten the Chiefs – also in Devon – during the final round of regular-season action a week earlier, then it could have secured a home semi-final.

Sanderson added: “We have been working towards it and building for this for two years, certainly since a year last Christmas when we realised we had a lot of work to do as an organisation.

“Since then, we have looked at how we can give ourselves these kind of opportunities.

“Now we are here, it feels like we have earned it. It’s less of a fairy-tale and there is less emotion around this occurrence than there was two years ago.

“We have referred back to the players, in particular seven or eight of them who have won the big trophies in the past, and how they have managed these weeks, how we can manage these moments better.

“It is a general understanding of how we deal with it, make sure it doesn’t change us, but be aware that it is there.”

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