I can’t help it. Twenty-five-odd years of supporting Sale have planted a demon in my brain whose only job is to say, before any match, “they’re fully capable of buggering this one up, you know”.
And, for a while at the start of this game, that little demon was rubbing his hands in anticipation as Leicester looked a bit keen and disrupted a couple of Sale line-outs. Was this going to be another blip on the road, like the Quins game a couple of weeks back?
Seven minutes in, though, Faf nonchalantly kicked a gorgeous drop goal, and things started to settle down a bit. Although George Ford pulled it back to 3–3 a few minutes later, the flow of the game had shifted in Sale’s favour. This was underlined on the quarter hour when, after a passage of play in front of the Leicester line that had referee Tempest shouting “new advantage, four never onside” several times, AJ squeezed his way through a gap in the defence for Sale’s first try.
Ford pulled back another three points a few minutes later but, by now, Sale were getting into their stride and starting to dominate possession and territory.
There was a certain ironic inevitability about Sale’s second try. A five-metre attacking scrum, Faf picks up from the base and ships to — it had to be — Manu to score under the posts. The great scriptwriter in the sky couldn’t resist writing Manu’s first try for Sale being against his old club.
The half ended with the score at 9–20 after an exchange of penalties and with Sale pretty much in control.
Five minutes into the second half, we were treated to the try of the month, if not the season. Luke fielded a high kick and set off on a mazy counter attack. Passes and offloads got them to the five metre line, a couple of quick rucks and there was Jonno going over for try number three.
Five minutes later, an attempted clearance was charged down and Leicester had their first try. Oops.
Just past the halfway point, and another bit of slick handling had Denny going over in the corner for the bonus point try. 37–19, plain sailing, let’s go home now, it’s a foregone conclusion.
But there’s a reason that little demon still occupies a place at the back of my mind. For whatever reason — complacency, relief, arrogance, tiredness or just the shifting tides of fortune — Sale then went, not to pieces particularly, but things definitely went wobbly. The cohesiveness of the team seemed to weaken; passes went astray, dropped balls, a general feeling of not being quite there. And so, inevitably, Leicester came back into it with two more tries, bringing the score to 31–37 with three minutes left.
I have a theory. Ahem. This is my theory, what it is: I don’t feel comfortable unless the points difference in Sale’s favour is at least twice the number of minutes left to play. And, even then, they could still blow it. Six points ahead, three minutes to go: squeaky bum time.
Fortunately, from the kick-off, we managed to keep Leicester trapped in their own 22 until, just after the 80-minute mark, they transgressed in front of the posts. AJ kicked the penalty, 31–40, no points for Tigers. Which may be a bit harsh on them, and doesn’t affect anything, but (let’s be honest) it feels good to maximally beat Leicester, whatever the circumstances.
It may seem churlish to have a bit of a moan following a 5-pointer away at Welford Road but, in the grand tradition of Sale supporters throughout history, here goes.
That period following the bonus point try is not something that should be happening in a team with title ambitions. At least, it should not be happening regularly. But it is. Many times, the opposition fails to capitalise, as with Bristol the game before. But here we had a Leicester team who, despite their league position, still had enough class to capitalise on an opposition who had relaxed a bit. They had the nous to shake us up and make getting back into gear more difficult, to keep us off-balance and making mistakes.
This nodding off after achieving a goal has to be addressed. Turn the screw, be ruthless, there is always more job to do; it isn’t done until the final whistle. Exeter stay alert, so do Saracens. Yes, the game ebbs and flows such that you have this slow shift of dominance overlaying the normal, more short-scale, back-and-forth. The trick is to stay alert during those periods where the other team are on top and force the game back to you. And you especially retain focus when you are 18 points ahead, bonus point in the bag, but there is still a good portion of the second half to go.
However, enough of that, let’s concentrate on what was good about this performance. After a slightly cagey start, and prompted by AJ’s try, Sale started to show what they are really capable of. There was lots of good handling, some wonderful offloading and a sense of a team playing as a team. It even got a bit All Blacks-esque for while. The line-out is still a cause for some concern, at least early on, and the scrum creaked a bit — Coenie is not a loosehead; I know he doesn’t mind which side he plays, but he’s much better on the tight side — but the rucks generally worked well, with Curry being a nuisance as usual. The forwards mostly carried well, and the backs looked as good as I’ve seen them in a while.
Ashman did his future chances a lot of good, with a solid 25 minutes replacing Akker. Luke just gets better and better and Faf is getting back to the player we know and revere. I’m not sure about Rohan and Manu together. Not that there was anything particularly wrong with the pairing, I just like to have someone like Sam James filling the old Jos Baxendell role.
So, a real curate’s egg of a performance; a very welcome 5 points, but with Bristol, Wasps and Bath all winning, we can’t relax. Every game from now on is a must-win.
Saracens at home next. They’ll be without
thuggoFarrell, but they’re still a formidable team. Then again, I think now is our best chance to beat them. And we’re going to have to, with Bristol, Wasps and Bath all having very winnable home games themselves.
I suspect Cliffy and RdP will start. We should get our first look at Wiese at some point, and maybe Sam Hill will get a look in.
Whatever, I will be sat watching, trying to tell that little demon to just STFU.