Crunch time. One… indifferent… game on return and one with insufficient improvement against the best team in the league threatened to leave Sale’s playoff ambitions if not in tatters, then seriously dented. Defeat at Wasps may not have been the final nail, but it would make it exponentially more difficult to regain lost ground.
When Sale were penalised early on, I admit to thinking “here we go again”. But then, oddly, Wasps started giving up a string of penalties to the point that, eight minutes in, Sale were 3–0 up, courtesy of AJ’s boot.
We then had 20-odd minutes of midfield back-and-forth, with Wasps looking a bit more inventive, trying to move the ball through the backs, and Sale doing their Gandalf-on-the-bridge-of-Khazad-Dûm act. Then, half-an-hour in, Wasps were awarded the penalty that allowed Gopperth to bring the score level at 3-all.
A couple of minutes later, McGinty kicked one from 40+ metres out, then Gopperth got one a couple of minutes after that, and then on the stroke of half-time, AJ kicked another 40+ metre penalty to take Sale in to the break 9–6 up.
Wasps came out after the break with some serious intent and applied significant pressure on the Sale line. Sale, however, continued to say “you shall not pass”, and soon Wasps were giving up penalties again. A quarter of an hour after the break and the score was now 6–15, following two more kicks from AJ.
And then, halfway through the half, a lovely delayed pass from AJ and Luke James was in at the corner. The kick slid just wide, but now Sale had a 14-point lead and were looking quite confident.
Five minutes to go, still 20–6, and I’m thinking that surely we can’t bugger this up now, when Jonno gets himself stupidly yellow carded. I mean, seriously, there was no need for it. He had been immense (well, duh) up to that point, but that was a brain fart of major proportions. Perhaps he wanted to get off before the rush…
Anyway, that signalled a concerted attack by Wasps on the Sale line, which eventually bore fruit with a 78th minute try. The conversion was missed, which left them without a losing bonus. Unless, of course, Sale could make a mess of the final few seconds of play after the restart, not something I would have bet against last year, and old habits die hard. We couldn’t lose, but we could have handed them a league point that we really don’t want them to have.
But we didn’t mess it up, and AJ booted the ball out for a deserved, if slightly unexpected victory. Wasps seem to be becoming an anti-bogey team for Sale.
So what changed? Apart from “most of the team”: the lineout was much better, the scrums were solid, the kicking reliable and we didn’t get pinged off the park. So, we had a bunch of guys with a point prove providing a solid set piece foundation and with the confidence to do their job without that bit of hesitation that marked the previous two outings. From there we started to see the return of the pre-lockdown Sale: inventive in attack, unyielding in defence.
Also, Sale simply played the condiditions better. Wasps were trying to throw it around in the backs, when the weather was not conducive to that sort of play. Sale, on the other hand, mostly kept it close, rarely getting beyond the 12 before going into a new phase. Not pretty, but pragmatic and effective.
Lots of standout players out on the night. Ben Curry was everywhere — captaincy didn’t seem to faze him; Langdon acquitted himself well at hooker — give him time and he could be the new Webber (he can certainly give Akker lessons on throwing); Wilf and AJ worked well together, Rohan was showing signs of his old self and Luke James was… well, Luke James.
So, part one of two completed successfully, third place regained. With Exeter (just) beating Bristol, Saturday’s game becomes a contest for second place. We could have done without Brizz getting the losing bonus, but it is what it is and it only makes the possible gap narrower, it doesn’t make them safe from being overtaken.
Here’s to Saturday, a return to the top two and our fate in our own hands.