Posted in match reports

View from the south stand: Sale Sharks 28 Saracens 7

The bookies had Sale at between 1–20 and 1–30 to win this match, so expectations were high that a strong Sale team could put a 2nd-choice (but certainly not rabbits) Saracens to the sword. And, for twenty minutes, it looked as if the bookies may have erred on the cautious side, as Sale scored their first try inside of two minutes and, by the 18th minute, had added two more for a 21–0 lead.

Just the facts, ma’am

Saracens made a bit of a pig’s ear of Sale’s kick-off, allowing them to recover possession a few yards from the try line. A bit of rumbling from the forwards and, next thing you know, Wilf is spinning it back right, where it goes via Hammersley to Rob to Denny, who bundles over in the corner. Rob kicked a great touchline conversion, and we were off, rubbing our hands in glee at what was surely to come.

To their credit, a young, mostly inexperienced Saracens team responded well. For the next ten minutes or so, they had decent territory, but couldn’t keep possession, coughing the ball up regularly to relieve any pressure before it had even started to build.

Sale, for their part, seemed to be trying to force the issue, as if they expected the tries to come regularly and frequently. At this stage, just playing it straight might have been a better tactic, leaving the champagne stuff for later when the opposition were a bit more tired (and when they’d be attacking the south stand, so that we get the chance to see more than the occasional try—have you noticed that a disproportionate number of Sale tries are scored in front of the north stand?).

Then, about a quarter of an hour in, an error by Saracens lead to Marland getting the ball out wide. He made good ground, cutting in to feed Wilf, who completed a fairly simple try, which Rob again converted. 14–0, feeling better.

A couple of minutes later and a training ground move produced the sucker punch that, in reality, clinched the match. Ben Curry waltzed through a gaping hole in the lineout for the easiest unopposed try he’ll probably ever score. It was such a ridiculously simple move that we spent the next few minutes waiting for the ref to come up with a reason it couldn’t stand – these things are almost inevitably the result of some form of shenanigans – but, no, there it stood and, with the conversion, we were 21–0 up inside twenty minutes. Cricket score in prospect.

Ah, but this is Sale we’re talking about. We were then treated to forty minutes of midfield thud and blunder before Segun, who had only just come on, found a gap in the Sale defence and scored Saracens’ only try.

Both teams were trying, but Saracens’ relative lack of experience and Sale’s enthusiastic lack of pragmatism resulted in the game getting mired down into lots of frantic effort, but for very little go-forward. In fact, I was listening to the BT commentary on my RefLink, and Dimes made mention of some over-enthusiasm getting in the way. Maybe he’ll incorporate some “cool down and grind it out for a while” into the training regime.

Anyway, mid-way through the second half, Saracens brought Segun on and, within a couple of minutes, he’d done what he does best: turned on the afterburners and raced over the line. 21–7 and we’re thinking, “that’s what you get for faffing around showing off instead of getting your heads down and focussing on how to get across the try line”.

Sale responded by upping the pressure on the Saracens’ line, resulting in Alex Goode getting a ten-minute rest for offside at the ruck. (I should note that the ruck was a result of some sustained Barbarian rugby from Sale. Just shows what can happen when you turn it on at the right time – fabulous stuff.) A couple of minutes more pressure and then – who else? – the warthog rampaged over the line from at least a metre out. Cue Nick Mullins and Ben Kaye chiding Chris Ashton about the identity of Sale’s top try-scorer this season (with 10 in all competitions, by the way).

A couple of minutes later, Yarde was denied a deserved try with a Cueto-esque foot in touch, and Alex Day (who just come on) saw yellow for a high tackle on Luke. But the game sort of petered out, Warr and Curtis got a bit of game time, Saracens gave up a penalty with time dead, and we could look forward to a home final against Harlequins – again (didn’t we beat Sarries in the semi-final that time, too?).


They say “you can only play what’s in front of you”, which is true, if somewhat trite. What this little aphorism misses that a lot depends on how you play what’s in front of you, and I think Sale are still learning that one. You got the impression watching this game, that the early try had set the mindset to “playtime”, which led to the team trying to force the game and play the flashy offloads before they had really established dominance.

I think, in order to effectively go into that free-flowing mode, you have to bully the opposition a bit beforehand; you have to show them your dominance early on, beat them up a bit, muller a couple of scrums, get a couple of ruck turnovers, dominant tackles – all the things that’ll make their heads drop a teeny bit. Then you can start to throw it around, offload from the tackle and so on, causing them to lose just a bit more heart. Cruel, but that’s professional sport for you.

Start chucking it about too early and they’re still fresh and enthusiastic; a couple of your offloads will work, but moves will, on the whole, tend to fizzle out after a few phases. That keeps the opposition’s heads up and the work of grinding them down takes a bit longer.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t be a bit… creative… early on – it was some smart offloading that lead to Sale’s first try, after all. Counter to that, though, it was Cliffy trying to offload when it wasn’t on that lead directly to Segun’s try. When it’s appropriate: if you’re forcing it, then it’s time to knuckle down and play the percentage game.

Cliffy continues to take advantage of Faf’s absence – he was close to man of the match for me: kicked well, good pass. He only really lacks a “dart” to keep the flankers honest, and he’d be pushing a fit Faf every week.

Marland’s return to form is proceeding apace. He deserved a try and was only denied by a split-second between foot down and ball down. He defended well, considering who we’re talking about, here, made several incisive breaks and looks to be getting more and more confident in his knee with each game.

Bryn the (ex-)beard still has what it takes and was a constant nuisance to the Saracens’ lineout, both front rows did their jobs – isn’t it nice to be able to change the front row after 50 minutes with no loss of effectiveness?

The du Preez twins were everywhere and Dan was, rightly, the official man of the match. Much as I enjoy watching it, though, I do wish they would temper the offloading to appropriate times (see comments above). Again, don’t think I’m having a go: on the whole, their style of play makes for exciting rugby and often opens up opportunities that may not otherwise have been there. But sometimes a careless offload can put the team in trouble. The skill is knowing when to do the former and when not to do the latter.

Anyway, enough of that. A win against Saracens is always worth celebrating. Even more important, though, is that Sale finally have a squad that inspires a bit of confidence in the fans. A squad that you genuinely feel can take on the best – or, rather, will be able to take on the best in the near future, once some of the creases have been ironed out. That’s why I said a the start of the season that top six and not being stuffed in Europe would be a success for me. The Premiership cup and a top four place would just be icing on a very good cake.

They’re going to have to go up a gear next week at Allianz Park, though…



Photographer and science geek. Rugby fan (Sale Sharks).