Getting too excited about something carries its own danger: the thing may not live up to the hype, and the feeling of deflation is even more pronounced than than would otherwise be the case. It wasn’t actually Sale losing that got me down, although I felt this was probably their best chance to do one on Quins at The Stoop in ages. No, what left me feeling flatter than a week-old pint was the sheer, turgid dreadfulness of the whole thing.
I don’t know why I expected better: a five-month lay-off, an empty stadium. Why would anyone realistically expect the players to pick up from where they left off? Although… this went beyond a bit of rustiness into several-centuries-at-the-bottom-of-the-ocean levels of corrosion.
I watched Exeter the next day and, after about 20 minutes, they got into their stride and played as if there had been no break, so it can be done. And, since they’re our next opposition, Sale are going to have to get back into the groove if they’re to have any hope of closing that, now 9-point, gap again.
So what went wrong? Many things all acting in concert didn’t help. Sale’s ‘traditional’ slow start, losing a couple of quietly influential players in Webber and Evans, and a brand-new centre partnership among others.
We can talk about players off their game: Faf looked flat, Manu hardly got a look in, Byron dropped a catch, Akker couldn’t hit a barn door, the usual stuff. But the Quins’ player weren’t great, either. No-one really shone; a couple of decent runs, but Sale had a few good moves, too, so neither side outdid the other in the skills category.
Even Rob’s humungous brain fart wasn’t the deciding factor. Yes, you could argue that it cost us the game as there is no way that Quins were going to score a try otherwise. I’m not going to join in the calls for his head that I’ve seen going around, because that act was so thoroughly atypical that I doubt it will ever be repeated. Even the horrendous penatly kick miss just before half-time – OK, he’s not as good a kicker as AJ, but even AJ has missed sitters before. And yet, you have to ask: what prompted such an act of monumental stupidity?
No, the reason that that was such a dismal performance is that Sale, quite simply, got poleaxed by the new law interpretations.
For the first few minutes, they looked pretty bright and eager. Tom got his hands on the ball a couple of times and got the (new) quick decisions in his favour. But then those quick decisions at the breakdown started going against Sale, and they looked like they couldn’t understand what was happening. It took about 20 minutes to adjust, by which time they had given away 10 penalties and were on the back foot territorially and mentally. From that point on, they looked hesitant about every breakdown, as if expecting to be pinged as soon as they engaged.
From there it escalated. The fowards were operating mentally a second behind Quins, who had adapted more swiftly. That lead to scrappy ball for Faf, pressure on Rob and the dog’s leavings for the rest of the backs. That they recovered enough in the second half to score the first try and (brain fart incident aside) kept Quins from particularly threatening the line is a glimmer of light from that game.
It’s disappointing because we’ve lost ground on Exeter and slipped behind Bristol, but it’s one game, there are plenty left and it’s so tight that we could easily be back to 2nd next week. Yes, it would have been nice if a win against Exeter could have seen us breathing down their neck, rather than regaining lost ground, but that’s where we are.
I hope that Sale will spend this week getting their heads around the new interpretation, figuring out how to not get pinged quickly and, conversely, get the quick decision when they can. There were an inordinate number of penalties flying around this weekend across all games – maybe the refs got a bit too whistle-happy and will tone it down, maybe it’s down to the players to adjust. I hope this experiment settles down the way it has in NZ, or I fear that it’s going to ruin the game as entertainment. There’s no fun in watching a succession of penalties for 80 minutes.
I’m not going to panic, I’m not going to get on Rob’s back, I’m not even going to demand the instant re-instatement of Sam James (although I would be in favour of that). No, right now, I’m going to look forward to next Friday and hope that Sale do that other thing they’re very good at: bouncing back with a vengeance.