Sale ............... 3 Scottish Districts ............ 27

TWO late touchdowns from James Craig put an acceptable complexion on the scoreline for the Scots after they had struggled to subdue the spirited home side at Heywood Road last night.

The Districts had been forced to reshuffle their line-up in the build-up to the match because of illness and injury.

Hooker Rob Russell called off early in the day after being floored by a stomach upset, while lock Darren Burns picked up a knee injury while training with Scotland's sevens squad at Murrayfield on Monday night.

Then, just hours before the kick off, replacement scrum half Graeme Beveridge also went down with gastric trouble and had to be left behind at the team hotel.

There wasn't sufficient time to pull in a deputy, so Luke Smith had to cover both half-back positions.

On the plus side, however, Rowen Shepherd made a dream return from his fitness lay-off as he claimed a great touchdown just three minutes into his comeback.

The Glasgow Caley skipper was experiencing his first live action since recovering from a knee-ligament problem, which at one stage threatened to keep him sidelined for the rest of the season.

Fraser Stott fed Craig Chalmers with a quick tapped penalty close to the Sale line and Shepherd reached the target after wrongfooting three markers. Chalmers proved he had no after-effects from his injury as he slotted the conversion from an awkward angle.

The Red Reivers looked certain to increase their advantage five minutes later when they created a multiple overlap.

However, with team-mates literally queuing up to finish the move, a slack pass by Ian Jardine allowed Paul Knight to hack the ball 60 metres back into Scots territory.

Knight looked capable of booting it all the way to the line, but Craig backtracked to mop up.

The Districts enjoyed another let-off when home full back Joe Shaw sent a simple penalty wide from 22 metres out.

The England Under-21 man made amends, however, with a more difficult chance when the Red Reivers backs sneaked offside.

Despite being without several of their big names, Sale were proving a real handful for the Scots, who were pinned back in their own 22 for most of the half.

They shook off the shackles as the interval approached, but couldn't break through.

Coach Rob Moffat reshuffled his back line for the second period. Luke Smith came on at outside half in place of Chalmers, and Shaun Longstaff switched from wing to Jardine's centre slot, with Ally Common taking the wide right berth.

Play in general was still patchy and disjointed, due mainly to fussy and inconsistent refereeing by Argentinian Roberto Martinez.

The Red Reivers were given another reprieve in the fifty-first minute as Shaw again miscued a straightforward pot at goal.

Then No.8 Marty Waite was forced to dash behind his own line to get the crucial first touch after wing Karelle Dickson pounced on a misdirected drop-out by Smith.

The Districts stretched their advantage with an easy Shepherd penalty when Sale were guilty of handling on the ground.

Shepherd's strike acted as a confidence-booster and, a few minutes later, Common made sure of the win when he skidded over in the corner.

Then Craig produced a typical burst of pace to outstrip several markers to add another fine score, and repeated the dose in the dying seconds.

Coach Moffat admitted that until the late burst his team's display had been sloppy and frustrating.

He said: ''We made such a bright start only to fritter away a lot of promising situations with basic and silly mistakes.''

Sale - J Shaw; R Worsfold, M Laxton, P Knight, K Dickson; T Barlow, R Smith; P Winstanley, S Diamond, D Williamson, W Harrison, A Whittle, A Morris (capt), J Machacek, S Mills. Replacements used: P Smith, M Armstrong, T Fell, I Davies, M Smithyer, M Cueto.

Scottish Districts - A Bulloch; S Longstaff, I Jardine (captain), R Shepherd, J Craig; C Chalmers, F Stott; R McNulty, S Brotherstone, G McIlwham, C Hogg, I Fullarton, R Wainwright, M Waite, G Flockhart. Replacements used: A Common, L Smith, J Shaw, B Renwick, W Anderson, G McKelvey.