Posted in match reports

View From The South Stand: Sale 22 Northampton 10

There is only so long you can continue excusing a new-ish team’s narrow defeats and sub-par performances. With this game, we’d pretty much got to the point where Sale really needed to front up. Defeat here would raise serious worries about their ability to push on and secure a top six spot and Europe next year.

Shame that the opponents were the current league leaders, then…

Just the facts, ma’am

Sale started brightly, dominating possession and territory for the first fifteen minutes or so, during which they put 10 points on the scoreboard through a Rob du Preez penalty and a Chris Ashton try, converted by Rob. The try came from an interception (and he was definitely onside, sir, no, not in front at all, cross my heart) of a Reinach pass out wide in the Saints’ 22. It was as if Reinach had had a Faf moment, whilst Faf played the game fairly straight (I’ll come back to that later).

It’s in the nature of sporting contests that they ebb and flow. Periods of activity followed by periods of calm; one team dominates, then the other. So it was that Bryn got pinged for being on the wrong side of a ruck and Biggar gratefully broke Northampton’s duck. We then had about 20 minutes with Northampton in the ascendency, during which a Ludlum try restored parity. Personally—and having watched it again—I think he dropped it (if it even touched the line), but the only one whose opinion counts was convinced, so 10-all it was.

Hammers went off on 30 minutes, although he didn’t seem to be injured and, whilst not stellar, hadn’t done much wrong, apart from a howler of drop during a good attack. Denny came on and Ashy went to fullback.

The second half started with the pleasure of seeing Faf spinning Naiyarovoro into touch and, soon after, a cracking break through a gap in the defensive line saw van Cannonball scoring under the posts. 17–10 and things were looking up.

Things got even better four minutes later when a driving maul gave Akker his 50th (seemingly) try of the season.

Three tries within 50 minutes, 22–10, could Sale on to make this a truly convincing victory?

Sadly, no. For 30 minutes, Sale chased the fourth try, but it was not to be, mainly down to errors at crucial times. Twice Sale camped on the Saints’ line: the first time, Lawes turned the ball over, the second we gave away a penalty at the ruck (actually, how can you even do that when you’re rumbling it in the forwards?). Horse went close, but was bundled into touch five metres out.

So, three tries went begging in that last half-hour.

And so events wound down to full time. A last Northampton attempt to salvage something, a dropped ball and the final whistle. Four points, thank you very much, and fourth in the table was a nice Christmas present for the fans as they made their way home.

The verdict

Arguably the best performance from a Sale team this year (I’m not counting Prem cup games, since they were kind of ‘off the grid’ a bit). Still much to improve on, though – giving up twice as many turnovers as you make needs looking at. But there were genuine signs of a potentially devastating attack lurking in the wings. I don’t think it’s going to suddenly click and someone will get demolished (although that’s always a possibility), but more that things will slowly gel: the mistakes will get fewer and farther between, the good bits will get better and more common. By the end of the season, I would expect that last thirty minutes to be producing at least two tries, rather than heroically failing to finish of several chances.

For me, though, the significance of this performance was not that the attack started to look properly threatening, with several good, penetrating runs from all parts of the field, but the way they handled the period of Saints’ dominance. As I said, games ebb and flow and sometimes the opposition will be on top. Sale handled that period of being under attack calmly and efficiently. Yes, Northampton scored a try, but that’s almost irrelevant – teams do score at all sorts of inconvenient times – what counts is that Sale weathered the attacks without any signs of panic or desperation, just quietly doing the job needed.

Add to that not letting Northampton have even a sniff of a score in the second half and you’ve got a performance that promises much better things to come. Not even a hint of squeaky bum time toward the end.

Rohan looked threatening in attack, and did more for Sale’s cause than Naiyarovoro did for Northampton’s. Apart from a couple of bullish carries, Naiyaovoro’s threat was largely stifled by good defence starving him of ball. Oh, and one count of a blond terrier manhandling him into touch – I bet he won’t be telling his grandkids about that.

I mentioned before that Reinach seemed more Faf than Faf. Apart from one kick direct to touch when he’d been told that it was taken back in, I don’t recall any “oh, for f–Faf’s sake” moments. He played as a consummate scrum half. No high/low passes, no speculative flinging of the ball out wide, just intelligent play to get moves started with a few little darts just to keep the defence honest. I think there may be an inverse relationship between the quality of the team’s overall play and the number of Faffisms in a game. In that, I think he responds to a struggling side by being a bit more speculative, whereas a comfortable team is a comfortable Faf.

Of course, should Sale start to dominate a game, I’m sure that Faf will then feel emboldened to try to mix things up a bit. Things that result in an interception try against the run of play, for example. Quite honestly, though, if that’s the price you have to pay for having someone like Faf on the team, well, it seems cheap to me.

Lineouts were significantly better. One squint, one overthrown and one nicked, by my count. We also nicked a couple of theirs, too.

With the improvement in his lineout delivery, Akker is looking more and more like the standout signing of the last coulple of years. Solid in the scrum, devastating in the loose, able to score tries at will… Ok, maybe not that, but he does have an impressive try count already for a hooker.

Ashton continues to impress me with his commitment to the cause. The way he chased down a Northampton break that looked to be a nailed-on try went over and above. OK, it was a high tackle and it gave away the penalty that lead to their actual try, but the point remains that Ashton will chase down lost causes and has done on several occasions so far.

Honorable mentions to pretty much everyone else: Sam James put in some cracking kicks to touch, WillGriff and Coenie were as solid as ever, Bryn was a nuisance in the lineout and around the park, Phillips was Phillips…

Moving on…

So, that was a much-needed game, but it’s over now and the momentum needs to be maintained. Bath will be on a high after demolishing Irish, but we have to remind ourselves we stuffed Irish, too. I don’t see Bath as proving more of a test than Northampton. They’re a decent team that haven’t been quite performing lately, but are capable of turning it on and beating anyone. But so are Sale.

Bring it on.

Posted in match reports

View from the armchair: Exeter 35 Sale 10

Well, that went pretty much as expected, given the distinctly non-first-choice team that Sale fielded. It did leave us, though, with a huge, burning, unanswered question: why did Sale have to change to their regular kit for a second time against the same team? Given we changed last week, shouldn’t Exeter have changed this week? We should be told…

The game

After last week’s narrow defeat, it seemed as though Dimes had decided that the Champions’ Cup had to take second place to the league, requirements to rest players and (according to some) the need for home time for the southern contingent.

Different hooker, same lineout. Two minutes in, Sale get a lineout, it goes squint. To be fair, there was a gale blowing but, if Exeter could cope on their lineout, then so should we. And then we pre-engage at the scrum and give away a penalty on the re-scrum. Not a great way to start.

The early part of the game, though, was all Exeter. They had the possession, the territory and the desire, it seemed, although the Sale defence was holding up quite well and denying Exeter the dominance that the figures might otherwise have suggested.

Then, fifteen minutes in, some rare Sale pressure on the Exeter try line resulted in a fairly easy penalty for AJ, giving Sale the lead for a short while. Somewhere in the build-up to that pressure, it seems that Cam Redpath took a knock, and he went off to be replaced by Marland, with Horse going to fullback.

Sam Simmonds got Exeter’s inevitable first try five minutes later in stereotypical Exeter fashion: camp in the red zone and rumble on for however long it takes to go over. Boring when it’s your primary, if not exclusive, method of scoring, but undoubtedly effective.

Ben Curry went off for an HIA (which he failed) and the rest of the half was essentially a mix of Exeter’s grinding game and Sale inaccuracies. You wouldn’t have believed that Sale had a strong wind behind them for the half, given how little territory they amassed.

As you would expect, it all went mostly downhill in the second half, when Exeter had the wind. Four tries to one says it all really. Langdon got binned (2 tries), Sam J got a good try from a brief period of Sale inventiveness, the ref took the players off the pitch when the hail started, Exeter got two more late tries and then the game ended.


  • It’s the first time this season that Sale have come away from a game with nothing. I suspect that, with more of the regular starters, we may have got a losing BP, even here (and may have denied Exeter their try BP). I’m not particularly fussed about that, but I am a little concerned that it seems that Dimes has ‘sacrificed’ this competition to whatever else he feels is more important (league, player rest time, whatever).
  • Not making the most of the wind in the first half was Sale’s biggest mistake. The conditions called for territory over possession, and I really wanted to see Sale kicking into the Exeter half and chasing hard. The Glasgow/La Rochelle match the night before showed the value of that tactic.
  • Still giving away silly penalties, still firing inaccurate passes. These are killing us by killing any fluency that we might build up in attack. Defence is much more solid, but there’s only so much they can do – they need a good portion of the game to be spent in attack, otherwise, they’re going to crumble eventually.
  • Sam and Luke had good games. You tend to forget that Sam’s a big lad, and quite capable of being physical in the centres. Luke has a little bit more guile, I feel, and much that he does goes under the radar.
  • Wilf and AJ were… steady. Dependable, but lacking that bit of creative spark to keep the opposition defence on their toes.
  • I thought Marland looked a bit more confident than last week. He put in a couple of decent tackles, including a good chase on Nic White to stop a promising break.
  • Curtis and Warr didn’t disgrace themselves for the time they were on (Curtis replaced Denny early in the second half, Warr came on late for Cliffy). Didn’t set the world on fire, either, but put in a decent shift.
  • We’re still third in the table. It’s within our grasp to maintain, and possibly improve, on that.
  • We’re not Bath…
  • I said early on that I wanted us to not disgrace ourselves in this competition, and I think we’ve already acheived that. Two more reasonable performances, and I’ll be happy with this, as long as we get back into the top flight again next season. Then, I expect us to kick on and at least challenge for a quarter final place.
Posted in match reports

View from the south stand: Sale 20 Exeter 22

This game was always going to be a big test. Exeter may have wobbled for the first few weeks, but now were back to their old, impregnable selves. Demolishing La Rochelle in France was a real statement of intent. At the start, few would have given Sale much hope; by the end, many of us were left wondering “what if…?”

The game

Seriously, apart from a mad ten minutes, Sale pretty much had the measure of Exeter. As evidence of this, note that all of Exeter’s points came in the twelve minutes or so that Tom Curry was in the sin bin. Yes, technically the penalty try came before the binning, but work with me here: for 68 minutes, Sale kept Exeter scoreless — indeed, they rarely threatened Sale’s line in that period.

Not that Sale particularly threatened the Exeter line, either…

Things started brightly enough for Sale, with the bulk of the early possession and some encouraging play around the backs. Eight minutes in, and Rob du Preez had given Sale first blood with a regulation penalty kick for a ruck infringement.

Five minutes later, everything changed. A missed tackle, a trademark Stuart Hogg run, a valiant last-ditch tackle and an illegal follow-up turned what had at first seemed to be a magnificent defensive effort into a penalty try and a binning for Curry, T.

One minute after that, a humungous hole in the defence, two missed tackles and a kick ahead had Sale a further five points down, but left Exeter without their most potent attacking force. Hogg seemed to roll onto his head in the act of touching down and went for an an HIA that he failed, so Olly Woodbourne took his place for the remaining 65 minutes.

Had Hogg returned, I strongly suspect that things may have turned out differently.

Simmons missed the conversion—his first miss this season—much to his and our disbelief as it seemed to be good, but the flags stayed down. I watched my recording of the game later, and it did seem to drift wide left.

The look on his face as he realised it hadn’t been given was priceless, though.

Exeter didn’t have it all their own way during that frenetic period. Following a Simmons penalty for a 15-3 lead, Bryn of the former beard charged down White’s attempted clearance kick and the ball bounced up into the arms of Akker who charged the length of the pitch for the touchdown (at least, that’s what it’ll become in the retelling; it was ten metres at best).

Rob missed the conversion, but we had a bit of a statement that Sale weren’t about to lie down and roll over.

Unfortunately, with a few seconds left on the binning, Exeter started the move that lead to Cowan-Dickie bulling over from a couple of yards out. Simmons kicked the conversion and Sale had now shipped 22 points in about 12 minutes. It was looking like we had a long afternoon ahead.

On the half-hour, Akker struck again, this time via the more usual route of a rolling maul. Conversion missed again and we were 22-13 down, which was how it stayed for the next 45 minutes.

After the somewhat frantic and error-strewn first half, Sale came out much tighter defensively for the second half. Watching again, it seemed as they’d decided to commit fewer players to the rucks, leaving more cover in the defensive line. This proved to be a smart move as the Sale defence for the rest of the game was tighter than a duck’s bum and they gave Exeter barely a sniff of the try line.

Sale’s own problems with getting any go-forward were also apparent, though, with lots of huffing and puffing and sideways motion until half-way through the half. This is when Rohan cut a lovely line to burst though the Exeter defence and charge some fifty metres upfield. It’s arguable whether he could or should have shipped the ball on to one of his supporting players but, either way, that signalled a change in Sale’s attacks.

Rohan went off, presumably shagged out from the effort of running that far, and the impressive Luke James joined his brother in the centres. From here, Sale’s attack looked more focussed, with smoother moves, more successful and penetrating.

With just over ten minutes left, Ben Moon went to the bin after a series of Exeter penalties near their line. Unfortunately, Sale suffered from the rule of three scrums (don’t take the third scrum after the second scrum penalty: this one will go against you) and Exeter were able to briefly relieve the pressure.

Then, with five minutes to go, Sale had a five-metre scrum, the ball came out, into the ruck, recycled to a charging Jonno Ross who crashed over the line. Conversion good, two points down with enough time left for an upset.

It wasn’t to be: Cam NeildCurtis Langdon coughed up the ball and Exeter efficiently ran down the clock to take the four points with an audible sigh of relief.

Thoughts and cogitations

Let’s talk about Marland for a moment. I’ve seen a lot of OTT reactions blaming him for pretty much everything that went wrong in the first half. That’s ridiculous. Yes, he got skinned for the first try and a tackle there would almost certainly have stopped the move. Wrong-footed for try 2, but Sam James missed the tackle and there was the small matter of a thirty metre hole in the defensive line, so blame must needs be shared around the whole team there. As for their third try, Marland was not involved, but I don’t see anyone blaming two hulking forwards for failing to stop Cowan-Dickie from just bulling his way through between them.

Marland, I think, may have recovered physically from his injury but I’m not sure he’s fully recovered psychologically. I wonder if the circumstances are still at the back of his mind and that’s causing a fractional delay in committing to the tackle. Perhaps he needs to spend some game time in a lower-pressure environment to get his head back on straight and gain the confidence in his body to go all out and be the player we want to see again.

The governing body has to address the problem of scrums. They keep fiddling, but there is a systemic issue that has to be dealt with, or we’ll put the casual observer off of the game forever.

Let’s be clear: I love scrums and rucks and mauls – it’s that competition for the ball that is why I prefer union to league. But I don’t love scrums enough to enjoy a constant stream of “crouch, bind, set, collapse”. I don’t know what the solution is, but there are people who are paid to think about these sorts of things, so they need to get their thinking caps on.

I suspect that nothing short of greater sanctions will work, penalties and cards, limit the number of times it can be reset. Also, I think that, if a player is binned for a scrum penalty, then the team should have to play 7-man scrums for the duration. No taking a back off to replace a binned prop, no bringing a big centre in as wing forward. Sanctions are there to punish foul play and they need to hurt. Having to scrum down 7 against 8 should hurt.

Late in the game, Sale had a one man advantage close to the Exeter try line. It took seven minutes to convert that advantage into a score, mostly because of interminable resetting of the scrum. Let’s propose a law: two successive defensive 5-metre scrum penalties = one penalty try. Harsh? Yes, of course. Should focus the mind, though… What might have happened if we were two points down with 10 minutes left, rather than five? Maybe Exeter would have scored again, maybe Sale would. What we wouldn’t have had, though, is five minutes of scrums collapsing and being reset.


  • The lineout went well. Apart from one squint throw, I think all of Sale’s went to hand and they nicked one or two of Exeter’s.
  • The scrum looked good. Maybe slightly less street-wise than Exeter, but held their own and even got a good shove on at times.
  • I remain impressed by Ashton’s committment. The way he chased down, and caught, Hogg went above and beyond. That the try was eventually given is not his fault. That’s perhaps the fourth time I’ve seen him chase down (and win) a seemingly lost cause. And who was it in the maul for Akker’s second try? Ashton. He goes looking: we need to get it to him more often.
  • Akker is looking to be a great signing. He gives us so much in the loose and it now looks as if a dodgy throw is becoming less of a liability.
  • As I said above, Marland looks as if he needs to get some confidence back. I suppose he could become the Steve Hanley of the 2020’s, but Stan never had the likes of Ashy, Denny and Horse breathing down his neck. Come on, Marland: you’re a great player and I really want to see those dreads bouncing down the wing on a regular basis.
  • OK, we lost, but we made them work and gave them a scare. From what I saw out there, if we could eliminate that mad ten minutes, we are more than capable of turning them over next week.
  • Every game we’ve lost this season, we’ve come away with a bonus point. I don’t think that’s ever happened before. I like to see this as ‘organic’ progress: each stage is built on a solid foundation of the previous stage, rather than shooting ahead on flimsy footing. Walk first, then run. Right now, it’s: yes, you beat us, but only just. Next time, though…
  • We got what was a pretty entertaining game in front of a (near) full house