It’s a strange feeling when Leicester come calling and you greet most of the team announcement with “who?” — I’m much more used to a feeling of rising dread as fearsome name after fearsome name is listed, even on a 6 Nations’ weekend. How the mighty have fallen.
Friday night rugby again courtesy of BT and the aforementioned 6 Nations’ competition, so we rocked up at a dark and damp Trafford Centre car park and headed for the shelter of the shuttle bus.
A small digression
At this point I’m going to remedy an omission from recent match reports: the TC shuttle. I’ve been meaning to sing its praises for a while now, but I keep forgetting. Anyway… absolutely brilliant service, which will only improve when the Metrolink finally gets there. And it’s surprisingly quick to get away, too. After the PRC semi, we joined the queue for the bus when it had extended as far as the club shop. We were back at the car about half an hour later. And if that’s not fast enough for you, then you have Trumpian levels of entitlement.
Back to business
Following the… less than ideal… result from the previous game, Sale were hanging onto third place by the skin of their points difference. Bristol had pulled off a good away win and were now level on league points and on games won. With Gloucester and Bath also breathing down our necks, a win was essential and a try bonus highly desirable. Five points from this game would guarantee at least third place at the end of this half-way point weekend.
Ominously, though, Leicester had been picking up league points at a fair old clip over the last few rounds. They were coming to the AJ Bell on the back of a good comeback win the week before, so were probably a bit fired up and reasonably confident. This would be a test of Sale’s ability to bounce back from a humbling defeat and to cope with the loss of several first-choice players. Akker and RJVR were missing after plastic-pitch-related injuries, Faf and Lood were still not ready and, to top it off, Ashy and CurryBen pulled out at the last minute.
It was with a sense of inevitability that, shortly after kick-off, an ill-judged box kick by Wilf handed the initiative to Leicester, culminating in a penalty and a three-point lead after three minutes. OK, three points this early doesn’t mean much and they’re playing with the wind in their faces. As long as they take note of what happened and adjust, they should be fine. Leicester weren’t looking exactly slick and polished themselves.
And, for the most part, Sale played it reasonably cannily, keeping the ball in hand where possible and kicking judiciously. However a general lack of accuracy and a tendency to drop the ball—coughDan du Preezcough—meant that we spent nearly twenty minutes completely failing to take advantage of a team that looked as if they had only just met on the coach up north.
The turning point—of the half, if not the match—seemed to come when Taute went off with an arm injury after about 13 minutes. Taute is a big midfield threat both in attack and defence, so losing him was a big blow. After that, Leicester started giving away a series of penalties that ended up five minutes later with Dan Cole being sent to the bin.
Even then, Sale made heavy weather of breaking down the Leicester defence and it wasn’t until the end of the sin-bin period, in that time waiting for a break in play for the offender to return, that Bryn Evans charged down a box kick and looked somewhat shocked when it bounced up into his hands but recovered enough to charge the five metres to the try line for the first Sale score. Rob du Preez’s kick got caught in the wind and fell a foot short of the crossbar but the score was now 5–3 and we were feeling a little bit happier.
Getting the score removed whatever was giving Sale the yips and they started playing with a bit more fluidity and intensity. Passes went to hand, offloads found defensive holes and there was a general feeling that things were about to get very interesting.
Just after the half-hour, from a routine midfield move 40 metres out, a subtle delayed pass from RdP gave Marland the chance to demonstrate that he’d recovered from that injury as he skinned the Leicester defence to score the second try. Rob’s conversion was good this time and we were looking much more comfortable at 12–3 ahead.
Two minutes to half time, Sale were within a metre of the Leicester line when Coenie Oosterhuizen picked the ball up, flopped forwards and grounded for try number three. With the conversion, we went into the break 19–3 up and feeling much happier than in the early minutes of the half.
The second half went the way second halves often do: turgidly. Little of note for 25 minutes except for Reid being shown another Tigers’ yellow card five minutes into the half. Sale again failed to capitalise on the advantage, apart from a penalty goal shortly before Reid returned to the pitch.
And so it sort of bumbled on, with Sale showing a few flashes of urgency and not a little amount of skill and adventure, without ever really pressing the accelerator. We were just starting to get a little twitchy about the bonus-point try when, again, Marland took a deft pass to score in the corner. BP achieved and big sighs all around the pitch. Rob put over a cracking touchline conversion and we were 29–3 up and Leicester were about to have a very subdued coach ride back to the Midlands.
Five minutes later we got the icing on the cake as Marland chased a neat grubber from Sam James to secure his hat-trick and a convincing victory. Another good kick from Rob was the hundreds and thousands on top of the icing. 36–3 and lots of happy bunnies heading to the bars and/or back home. (Less than 10 minutes wait to get on the shuttle bus, back to the car 20 minutes after the end of the match, home in Altrincham within 45 minutes. Please don’t tell me it’s hard to get to and from the AJ Bell.)
Sale showed some sublime skills on many occasions throughout the match but, even so, it was never a high-paced, exciting affair. This was down mostly to the paucity of opposition: Leicester defended well much of the time but offered nothing in attack and if there’s one thing an exciting game needs it’s two teams going at it hammer and tongs. It seems odd to come away from a 36–3 drubbing feeling a little flat but, whilst the result has done no end of good to our league aspirations, as an individual game it left a lot to be desired.
Flats gave MotM to Rob Webber, and I fully understand his reasoning: the man was immense all game, but it could so easily have gone to Marland or Jonno.
On what was a filthy night of driving rain and swirling wind, let’s recognise the kicking and throwing. Just one iffy box-kick from Wilf, one (barely) missed place kick out of six from RdP and a near-faultless lineout from Webber is pretty impressive.
Marland is back. OK, maybe not 100% but the sniper’s instinct is there: he was putting himself about in the tackle, and generally just being bad-ass all game. Denny had a slightly subdued game in attack but was a beast in defence. The twins seemed slightly off their games, being merely awesome rather than stellar. Dan, in particular, seemed to be auditioning for Top of the Drops. Jonno was basically just hitting anything in red that moved and the rest of the pack spent the game making right nuisances of themselves and generally beating up the Leicester forwards. Hammers had one of his best games for Sale: good under the high ball and with the odd slinky run that that earned him the nickname “spaghetti” from Dimes.
Lavanini had a good game for Tigers: he didn’t get sent off.
Did we learn much from this game? Well, Dan du Preez is apparently human, so there’s that. I was going to say that we now know Sale can win without particularly exerting themselves but that really understates how bad Leicester were. Quite honestly, a bunch of grannies would have put 20 on that Tigers team. I cannot recall such a lacklustre, uninspired and uninspiring team coming out of Welford Road. You can only play what’s in front of you but, when what’s in front is that poor, it’s hard to raise your game beyond what’s necessary and sufficient. We could and arguably should have put 50 past that team; that we didn’t probably says more about a lack of ruthlessness than anything else. They’re going to have to fix that lack if they’re going to occupy the upper reaches of the table for extended periods.
Looking at the season as a whole at the half-way point, Sale have achieved second place almost apologetically. While the media have been throwing plaudits the way of Exeter and Northampton, Gloucester and Bristol, Sale have quietly got on with the job, picking up bonus points if not winning. They have done this on the back of the meanest defence in the league; their +99 points difference comes more from a lack of points against than from points for. And that’s the thing: you notice the team that’s scoring for fun, even if they’re shipping as many as they score; you tend not to see the team that’s quietly neutralising opposing teams, going on the occasional rampage but mostly just quietly building up points.
And then you look around and they’re second and you’re thinking “bloody Nora, what happened there?”
Half the job done, now to do the other half. And this time, we should have the services of Faf, Lood and CurryTom for most of it.
Bring it on…