When you’re still having to pinch yourself to prove that, yes, we really are second in the table, it seems a little churlish to be greedily anticipating the possibility of going top. Even if only for 18 hours.
But that was one of the delights in prospect as we gathered in the tent thingy pre-match. Topping the table would be the icing, but the glacé cherries in the rich fruit cake (is this really a suitable analogy for a serious report? – ed) would be the return of Faf from injury and – finally – the first appearance of Lood de Jager.
My God, he’s huge
Well, you certainly can’t miss him in the warm-up. You won’t hear anyone say “Is Lood playing? I can’t see him out there”. Even Bryn cricks his neck to talk to him.
Warning: punditry ahead.
Irish had been on a bit of a roll, with three wins before coming a late cropper against Wasps. And that Wasps game seemed to provide the key: keep them at bay (as a minimum) for 50–60 minutes, then hit them in the last twenty when they look more vulnerable. Of course, hammering them for the full eighty would be great, but let’s keep the big picture in mind.
But you can talk about it and sagely nod at the wisdom of such tactics all you want; when they actually do that, you’re all “oh, for goodness’ sake, get on with it”.
There’s no pleasing some folks.
Insert witty headline here…
“A game of two halves”? Yes.. given that one “half” lasted 60 minutes and the other 20. There were some bright spots in those first three quarters: Sale were obviously trying to play rugby, although it seemed that Irish’s game plan was basically “spoil”. But, for all the effort, Sale’s only points before half-time came from an interception and a stunning length-of-the-pitch counter-attack. One for Sam, one for Luke, 12–0 at half-time and things were looking, if not rosy, then reasonably comfortable.
And that was pretty much the pattern for the first quarter of an hour of the second half. Lots of effort, possession and territory for Sale, but just a penalty goal to show for it.
And then a miracle happens…
Fifteen minutes into the second half, the floodlights briefly dimmed as they were eclipsed by Lood’s head, signalling the appearance of both of Sale’s World cup winners. To much amusement in the crowd, Lood and Faf trotted on together, looking like a player/mascot entrance at the start of the game.
And that was when the game turned. The tempo speeded up, there was a subtle but noticeable change in the set-piece and at the breakdown, and London Irish didn’t get a look in for the rest of the game. It was a bit of a bummer for those of us in the south stand since all the action was happening 100 metres away. The big screen got a lot of use for those 25 minutes.
When you have a line out featuring Bryn and Lood, and follow that up with a maul that adds Dan and Jean-Luc to the mix, then you have a somewhat worried defence on the other side. Which is probably why, less than five minutes after Little and Large(est) came on, Irish found themselves down to 14 men as Elrington was given a 10-minute rest for collapsing the maul.
A few minutes later, Sale pressed home their advantage as Webber scored from the back of a rolling maul. Rob du Preez added the conversion, and now we were 22–0 up and thinking that a try bonus was not optional any more, but an absolute requirement.
It took six minutes and a how-the-hell-did-they-not-score moment from Faf and Hammers before Sam James ran in under the posts for his second and Sale’s fourth. Bonus point achieved, second place for another round guaranteed, top of the league until at least Saturday afternoon. “We. Are. Toppotheleague, I say we are toppotheleague.”
A while back, I was watching a game on the telly, when a winger scored one of those touchline airborne tries with the snaking arm just grounding the ball. Whilst the commentators were gushing with praise for the feat, I remember thinking “well, yebbut Denny does that all the time”.
He did it again. Five minutes after the bonus point score, he was stretching out that long arm to scrape the try line with the ball, inches from being bundled into touch. It was Faf, of course, who saw the option and supplied the pass.
Then, with the clock about to hit zero, Faf put in the most sublime, pinpoint kick across the field straight into the hands of the onrushing Horse, who had a simple run-in for try number six.
Sale have now played 157 minutes at the AJ Bell without conceding a point – nothing has got past since Leicester’s third-minute penalty two weeks ago. That’s got to be worth something.
As I write this, after all the matches have been played in round 13, Sale has the third-highest points total with 334 (Sarries 338, Exeter 390), the fewest points conceded (190 – Exeter next with 230), the second-highest points difference (Exeter 160, Sale 144, Saracens 75) and we have eight bonus points (Exeter and Wasps have nine). I think that’s pretty good going, really.
Correlation is not causation
It’s entirely possible that, as the gathered masses thought might happen, LI faded in the last quarter and that was what allowed Sale to dominate even more forcefully in the latter stages. Or it may be that we needed the spark brought by two such influential players as Faf and Lood to really start to break down the Irish defence and spirit.
Whatever the reason, we went from a dour midfield battle in which Sale’s only points came from a couple of opportunistic tries (one of which was, admittedly, a sublime piece of team play) to absolute dominance and four, fully deserved, tries in twenty minutes: a twenty-minute period in which Irish barely got out of their own half, let alone into Sale’s 22.
None of which is to be read as a criticism of any of the starting fifteen. As I said, Irish’s game plan seemed to revolve entirely around spoiling Sale ball, with little intent or desire to contribute to the game as a spectacle. That Sale’s tries in this period were opportunistic is not a fault; it’s a credit that they took those opportunities when they arose. The one that was scored by Luke James is a genuine contender for try of the season.
But let’s talk about Faf for a minute. Tiring opposition or not, there was a definite fizz around the breakdown and the set-piece after he came on. Cliffy is a good, solid scrum-half; he has grown by leaps and bounds throughout this season and I have no qualms about seeing him on the pitch against even the strongest opposition. But we need to be honest: Faf is one of the best 9s in the world – international, world cup winner and possessing a spark, a je ne sais quoi, that is rare to find even in the greats.
For me it’s a no-brainer. If he’s fit, you play him.
As for Lood – immediate and obvious lineout threat; carried well; made a big impact in his time on the pitch. Will feature heavily in the remainder of the season. A definite contender to start next Sunday, but who drops out? I’m glad that it’s not my problem to solve.
So, still second after all the weekend jostling, but Exeter are catchable and there’s now the slimmest of actual gaps between us and Bristol in third, plus five points to Saints in fourth.
Still not thinking about the playoffs, though…