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…?”
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
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