And so, after an eternity without, we’re back to rugby with a vengeance. A few games taking place on the other side of the world and then the important stuff here: back at the AJ Bell for what we all hope will be an exciting and profitable season.
The clans gathered at a refurbished Brook with a feeling of expectancy: Sale were fielding a strong side (on paper) but, with several debutants, there was always the possibility that things could go horribly wrong (let’s face it, that’s always a possibility with Sale).
The game itself was pretty much what you would expect from two teams who haven’t played a competitive match for four months: scrappy, some deft flourishes, a few more clumsy fumbles, a general air of stumbling around before the morning’s first coffee has kicked in.
Five minutes in, though, things got properly under way with Simon Hammersley’s first try for Sale (first of two on the day and of many more for the season, we hope). Rob DuPreez’s conversion bounced off the post, but now we were up and running. Five minutes after that, a penalty got us to 8-0 and I thought we were looking comfortable.
A Grayson penalty reduced the arrears a bit, but a penalty try for a collapsed scrum (see pic) helped Sale pull further away to 15-3.
A try for Saints by Harrison (unconverted) meant that the teams went in at half time with Sale 15-8 to the good.
A minute into the second half, van Cannonball — looking a bit trimmer and playing much more like he did when here on loan — sprinted most of the length of the field for another unconverted try.
Ten minutes later, it was Ashey’s turn to score (Rob converted this one) and we were looking pretty comfortable at 27-8.
By halfway through the half, Sale had emptied the bench, and more: Cooper-Wooley came back on for WillGriff, who’d gone off for an HIA (which he presumably failed).
Grayson pulled back another three points for Saints, but, almost immediately, some nice work by Rodd gave a simple second debutant try — this time for Akker. Rob again added the 2 points; 34-8 and it was looking comfortable.
Hammersley scored his second a couple of minutes later, but Saints had the final say with a converted try by Alex Coles before things fizzled out a bit down to the full time whistle.
First game back, several new faces, no preseason friendlies to get the muscles back on line — it’s hard to say that this game could have given any solid pointers to what lies ahead.
There are some things that we can say with a bit of confidence, though: for one, we now have a fullback. By which I mean someone whose primary position is fullback and is very good at it, rather than a very good player-in-another-position who is doing a decent job at fullback. Hammersley (Hammo? Hammers?) looks nailed on to the position from what I saw out there.
Rohan’s back! The wrecking ball taking out several defenders with new, improved passing and a bit of a speed upgrade. Fingers crossed that he stays fit this season and that the AJ Bell’s hallowed turf is marked with a few defender-shaped dents over the coming months.
We look to have something of a Papier tiger in the team now, judging by his twenty minutes. Warr played well and put in a few good hits, but there’s something about a player with international experience that adds a little bit of fizz to the play. A sort of lucozade fizz, rather than Faf’s full-on, well-shaken Champers volcano, but it leaves me a bit less concerned about scrum half before the return of the blonde bombshell.
Akker looked good, no fall-off in the scrum or lineout when Webber went off, so things are looking positive there. Cooper-Wooley didn’t disgrace himself, and young Rodd played his part in keeping the scrum going well. Ross must be wondering what happened, coming off before the end of the game…
And then, of course, we have the Three Dupreez. Class acts, each of them. Jean-Luc picked up from where he left off (or maybe it was Dan taking over — who knows?), Rob provides a real alternative to AJ at out half. Maybe his kicking was a bit off, but Grayson had problems, too, so I think the wind was more problematic than it maybe seemed.
If we can get a full season out of Ashton and Rohan and if Yarde is back to full blazing speed (and if Denny wakes up quicker than he did last season), then we should consider anything less than top six a failure, given the quality on display, even when ring rusty.
I’d say top four, but there are enough new players and sufficient disruption this season that I would consider that a bonus, rather than an expectation.
Next season, however…