It was the return of squeaky bum time as, in an echo from times past, Sale eked out a slender lead with a few minutes to go, then spent the remaining time frantically protecting that lead from an opposition onslaught.
Once again, Dimes rang the changes with the side, trying different combinations, seeing what works and what doesn’t. The du Preez twins made way for the return of Jonno and for a bit of firtling with the pack. WillGriff and WillCliff both got a first appearance, and we saw what, last season, would have been many people’s dream back three: Marland, Denny and Ashy.
Things started off spiffingly. Three minutes in, lineout, maul, bish-bosh-bash and Akker’s on the floor over the try line. One conversion later, 7-0 up, job’s a good ‘un, we’re looking at another 39-10 for the day, 15 points in the table, get the trophy cabinet dusted, the cup’s as good as there. Start of whole new ear’ole.
Yeah, but— you knew there was going to be a ‘but’ didn’t you? For the next 55 minutes or so, it was just like the old days: knock-ons, wrong decisions, no go-forward, being outscored 20-3.
Loads of thud and blunder, but to bugger-all effect against a Wasps defence that was put under no real pressure. Meanwhile, Wasps had the lion’s share of the possession and territory and their two first-half tries seemed almost routine.
Fifty minutes in, and I’m mentally composing the bit where I explain why the defeat isn’t important, why this competition is about sorting out options, why progressing out of the pool stage is not the object at this point in the season and why— and then Denny scored.
So there we were, twenty minutes to go and only three points behind and what had been a pretty tedious affair (no scoring in the second half up to that point) suddenly started to look a bit tasty. Sale, to be fair, had been evening up the possession and territory stats after the break, but the try did come as a bit of a shock, given that the back three hadn’t been seeing much ball and Denny was looking a little bit lethargic.
Ten minutes later, Denny scored again and now Sale had a four-point lead. This woke Wasps up and they started a concerted ten-minute attack on the Sale try line.
And so, the return of squeaky bum time as Sale’s defence held on, grimly repelling attack after attack from the Old Saleanians in black. Sale fans should have buns of steel.
But hold they did, and the ref’s final whistle accompanied a mass relaxing of glutea maxima around the ground. Three games, three wins. A good habit to have.
- This is not our starting fifteen. I don’t mean by that that anyone failed to perform, just that the balance was all wrong. No carriers. No go-forward. We need at least one du Preez twin battering the opposition and getting the front-foot ball for the scrummie. We need van Cannonball dragging a couple of players hanging off him, and opening the gaps a bit. As it was, Wasps’ defence was tighter than a — well, wasp’s — chuff for large parts of the game.
- Now, here’s a sentence I never really expected to type: things picked up when Cliffy came on. No disrespect to Cliffy, but — let’s be honest — he’s a solid scrum-half: one that you can rely on to close out a game, but you wouldn’t really be expecting to help you win one. I’m not going to diss Papier over a — shall we say? — dull performance compared to previously. He’s only recently arrived off of a long domestic season. He’s not used to the team or conditions yet. He gets a pass. This time.
- I like the look of Akker. We now have two class hookers, plus solid back up. The two young looseheads, Bev ‘n’ Rod, look good as well. Hard to tell them apart, though…
- Coenie’s a nice big lump that I look forward to seeing possibly taking on the old Big Ted role (whichever side he ends up on).
- Cam Redpath, I think, needs to go outside someone like RJVR. Having him at inside didn’t work for me, not in the absence of any ball carriers elsewhere, anyway. I thought that was part of the reason why the wings and fullback didn’t have much to do for most of the game, the ball got a bit lost in the centres because there was no real opportunity to spin it out off the back of a few yards gained.
- Good to see Marland back. He didn’t see much of the ball, but maybe that’s a good thing. That was a horrible injury and I want to see him come back slowly testing it, rather than injuring it again.
- We won a game that we would probably have lost before. That’s a positive that pretty much outweighs any negatives from a lacklustre performance.
I think it’s right that the Premiership cup is used to blood new players, try combinations and generally firtle with the team without the pressure of the major competitions. It’s still important, though, to make those selections and changes with a view to fielding a team that can win the game. This was, IMO, a team that was dangerously close to not being that.
For Irish, I’d like to see RJVR and at least one du Preez twin back in (both twins and rest Ben could be an option). Maybe try Cam at outside centre and give Sam a break. Stick with Akker for the game time and start Coenie. Mind you, WillGriff looked rusty to me, considering how often the ref singled him out at scrum time, so maybe half each.
All things considered, I’m cheered by these two games (and the few nanoseconds of the Sarries game that I saw) and I’m looking forward to the Premiership season. I genuinely think we have the best chance of a successful season that we’ve had in many years.