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.
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…
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.