When I saw the team sheet for this game, I thought, “By ’eck” (or words with similar effect), “that’s a tasty set of backs. Try fest time.”
Mind you, my next thought was that the forwards were maybe a bit light, and that gave me some concern that the backs might not get the quality of ball they deserved. Not, I hasten to add, that there was anyone in there that I wouldn’t have wanted there, just that I felt we might really miss the likes of Beaumont or De Jager, or just a big, hairy bugger to do a bit of steamrollering.
Also, history tended to suggest that the Twindaloo option doesn’t work as well as it should in theory.
As it was, I was mostly wrong on all counts…
When Rohan bullied over the line within the first five minutes, I was all “yep; try fest coming. Out of sight by half time, bonus point coming. We’re going all the way. Bring. It. On.”
Yeah, but, no, but.
What followed was a seriously frustrating 35 minutes. Halfway into the half, and Rattez slid his way through a gap in a defence gone out of skew for a simple try under the posts to leave things all level. Then, for another fifteen minutes, all the reward Sale got was an AJ penalty and the top contender for try-pulled-back-for-an-infringement of the month.
When Sale turned over a Stade attack on their 5-metre line, everyone was expecting a deep box kick to safety. But AJ called, Faf delivered, Denny took off down the wing, inside to AJ, inside to Faf, inside to Ashey, boom!, splash! happy days are here again…
Let me say right at the outset that it wasn’t a try. We all accept that. AJ’s pass couldn’t have been more forward if he was playing quarterback in the NFL.
But. But, but, but…
The conversion was taken. The BT pundits said that the ‘interpretation’ has been changed. The ref said that the intervention from the TMO/assistant came before the conversion was taken.
But: the trial law changes dated August 2019 still talk about ‘before the conversion’. There’s nothing that says ‘unless it was realy, really forward’.
But: he made no attempt to signal that the conversion should be paused while he checks. I don’t know if it’s a requirement, but every other ref has done that that I’ve seen.
When is the next SSSC meet the ref night? We need to make sure this incident gets fully explained.
That said, it wasn’t a try and the law does need changing so that there can be a review up to, say, the restart. There may be legitimate reason for taking a quick conversion (late in the game, another score needed, for example), so I don’t want conversions force-delayed in case there’s a review, nor should reviewing be a matter of course. Just be sensible and be clear about what the law actually says.
And then there were 14. No, wait – 13
And so we come to the last five minutes of the half. Looking back on it, for me, this was the most frustrating segment of the whole game. First, we got the binning. A good break down the right, inside ball to Denny, there’s no way he fails to score. Unless someone grabs his arm just before he can catch the ball, of course.
Which is what happened. Leroux goes off for a rest, but there’s no penalty try because Bales was between Denny and the line. Now, you know and I know that there’s no way Bales would have stopped him from that distance, but the ref has to give the benefit of the doubt, so penalty 5 metres out it is.
We take the scrum, of course: it’s been going quite well, and they’ve just lost a second row.
Everything falls apart, penalty again to Sale but, meantime, there’s a bit of handbags between Curry, T. and Priso. Cue pile-on and a bit of utter stupidity that only a seasoned rugby player is capable of.
Replay shows Bourgerit’s hand coming round from the back of Tom’s head, the fingers wrap around his face, one of them makes contact with his eye and the course of events for the next couple of minutes could be read in the cloudiest of crystal balls.
Down to 13, two forwards missing, try two has to be inevitable, surely?
I don’t like criticising the ref in these reports (during the game is a different matter, of course), but he and his team must have been the only four people in the ground who failed to see the Stade pack back off at the ‘set’ and make it look as if Sale had pushed early. I watched the replay: it’s as clear as day.
Normal service is resumed
Half-time and only 10-7 up. Not enough by a long way. Second half needs to be better, tire them out, keep the forwards rucking, turn them, make them run around, strike in the latter stages.
Five minutes into the second half, attacking lineout for Sale, Leroux just back on and off goes Priso for collapsing the maul and giving away a penalty try.
But that’s it for another 30 minutes, apart from a penalty each. Sale were just 10 points ahead with about five minutes to go; not looking good for the bonus point win. Knowing Sale, even the ‘win’ part was in doubt…
Then a stroke of luck: Curry, B. charges down a kick and shows some footballing skills to get the ball within a couple of yards of the Stade line. A fumble, this time by the newly-arrived replacement full-back, and there’s poacher Ashton to pounce on the loose ball.
AJ provided the now-traditional bounce off the post, but at least Sale were 15 points ahead with a couple of minutes left. Shouldn’t be able to lose from here, and it was unlikely that Stade could score twice to get the losing bonus.
They did score once, though. A late try out on the wing with the clock dead. Conversion missed, a ten-point victory for Sale and we left the ground in that typically Sale state of elation mixed with vague existential dread.
- Lineout. It was… better. One squint (their first try came from the resultant scrum), others went to hand, but few provided quality ball. Still needs work.
- Twindaloo worked this time. Both Curries were immense. Tom, in particular, has really progressed from his time with England. Let’s hope they’ve connected the two of them to a mind-meld machine and Tom’s passing all that improvement on to Ben.
- Jean-Luc looked much more at home in the second row than he did last time out. Could have been player of the match had Tom not been there.
- I think that this set of backs needs to be persevered with. A couple more games together, and they’ll start to work. Probably needs a big lump forward bringing in as a medical joker, and for Faf to get his head back from Japan, but I stick with my earlier reaction: someone’s going to cop it at some point.
- Turnovers. Sale (well, Curryx2, really) seemed able to turn the ball over at will. I thought I heard mention of 11 to 1 at one point.
- Game management. We let Stade respond to the sending off the way they wanted and so failed to wear them down. They were coming off the line quickly, so we maybe needed to keep it tight, suck them in, tire them out. Turn them round, make them keep running back.
- Instead, we tried to go through the backs, forcing the issue when they got in our faces and making mistakes. Trying to chip, rather than go for distance and territory. Maybe they still don’t trust themselves to go through multiple phases without knocking on, so there’s a psychological barrier to ‘doing an Exeter’.
- Faf, sad to say, did not have his best game. Lots of endeavour, but a few too many mistakes and a slight hint of desperation to get things going at times, rather than exercising some patience.
- AJ’s kicking. Shockingly, AJ was only at about 50% for the game, with one shocking miss from a seemingly nailed-on position.
- Bourgarit. The ‘eye gouge’ was nowhere near as bad as some hysterical reports would have it, but you do not put your hand anywhere near someone’s face. Certainly not as a deliberate, considered action, which his certainly was. He could have pulled Tom’s shoulder, or he could have stayed out of it entirely, but reaching round to the face deserves a lengthy ban, regardless of any actual damage.
We are third in the Prem, second in our Champions’ Cup group and top seeds in the Prem Cup. All without ever really playing to full potential. That’s got to be worth a smile, surely.
I’ll say that again: we are 1st, 2nd and 3rd in three different competitions and we’re still only firing on three cylinders. Let there be no moaning at the back…