I’ve tried telling myself that better teams have lost and will continue to lose to Exeter, but it doesn’t help. Even the fact that Sale played so much better than last week doesn’t help. Played better, got less out of it; not a comfort. The simple truth is that, in two games, we’ve lost more ground on Exeter than I think it’s possible to make up. From 5 points behind to 14 points behind: that’s a big gap.
Not only that, but another place down the table to fourth. With the next two matches being against the two teams immediately above, you can’t help feeling that crunch time has arrived. A win at Wasps on Tuesday gets third place back. If Exeter do to Bristol what they just did to us, then next Saturday becomes the fight for second place. Lose on Tuesday and we will be out of the top four by close of play Wednesday.
Things started badly with Exeter engineering a hole in the Sale defence to score the opening try after 90 seconds. Then, astonishingly, within 10 minutes, Sale were 14-7 up after two impressively worked tries from line-outs – the first from Tom Curry, the second by Rob du Preez. That both tries involved a certain ex-Leicester player smashing his way through and tying up several defenders was not a coincidence.
Then it all went off the boil a bit, with only an Exeter penalty shortly before half time to trouble the scorers.
A Rob du Preez penalty just after half time restored Sale’s seven-point lead, but then the wheels came off. In the space of 12 minutes or so, we had three Exeter tries and a yellow card for Tom Curry. A late try from the elastic arm of Mr Fantastic, Denny Solomona, was too, too little, far, far too late.
On the plus side, Sale played much better than against Quins. Manu got involved early, often and effectively and showed what an asset he can be to the team. Rob du Preez got over his yips from Friday and did a decent job, taking his try well.
Lineouts and scrums are still a bit concerning, though — this is where we really miss Webber and Evans, and I think it will continue to be problematic until Akker/Langdon and de Jager get into the groove (or Beaumont returns…).
I still think, though, that the main thing that has done for us is a failure to adapt to the new interpretation at the breakdown. That, coupled with the loss of Webber’s influence, seems to means that we either do it the old way and get pinged or hesitate slightly and come off second best. At the moment, I’m not concerned about the actual penalty count (from what I hear, NZ teams had a torrid time of it for a few games), but the disparity. If we’re giving away significantly more penalties, then that’s an issue; if the numbers are about even, but high, then it suggests that the ref is a bit whistle-happy.
The sad truth is that this layoff has not done us any favours. For whatever reason, we’ve failed to come back to the boil ready for the start and this time, unlike a full season, there isn’t enough time to recover before the crunch. I’m almost starting to think that I’m ready to chalk this season down to bad luck and whatever we get as long as we start next season firing on all cylinders and get in our challenge right from the off. (I say almost starting because we shouldn’t really be having these “getting up to speed” phases if we truly have ambitions to be a great club, rather than a one-season flash in the pan.)
The next two games are key. We play the two teams directly above us in the league and we can either clamber over them back to second place, or drop further behind, with little chance of making up ground. Exeter are now out of sight, I fear, but second is still an option; but so, too, is seventh or eighth.