In his pre-match interview, Dimes made an off-the-cuff comment about how Manu had stayed injury-free for several games. He really needs to shut up, sometimes.
We may end up looking back on this game as a somewhat Pyrrhic victory, although it was absolutely necessary to get five points out of it if we weren’t going to blow a top four spot at the penultimate hurdle. I’m actually less concerned about not having Tuilagi than I am about losing Cobus Wiese. Manu is a welcome extra, a nice-to-have, but we’re not short of centres. Lock, though is a different matter. With Lood out long-term and Josh not due back until next season, it’s a big blow to lose someone who was shaping up to have a big impact ten minutes into his first start for the club. That leaves us with Phillips and Posselthwaite alongside Jean-Luc.
[As of writing this, it looks like Manu’s out for six months. Colour me surprised — we don’t seem to go in for half-arsed injuries, it’s six months or nowt. No word yet on Cobus.]
As I’ve said before, twenty-five or so years of supporting Sale have left this little demon in the back of my brain who delights in saying “they could still bugger this up, you know”. He was on fine form prior to the match, given that anything less than a five-point win would likely mean missing out on the playoffs.
He had pretty much shut up by half-time, though. With four tries already in the bag and Northampton looking as if they didn’t really know what they were supposed to be doing out there, my little demon was reduced to slouching around, kicking leaves and darkly muttering “still 40 minutes to go” under his breath.
You can imagine, then, that he was feeling pretty chipper as, halfway through the second half, Saints were only eight points behind, and Sale were leaking penalties like a very leaky thing.
But then, ten minutes to go, a bit of Faf magic saw Rohan juggling the ball on the right touchline before crashing over for try number five and, more importantly, a 13-point buffer. When Morozov finished off an Exeter-esque forward drive five minutes later and Rob du Preez finally got a kick between the posts, my little demon grudgingly admitted defeat and skulked off to drown his sorrows.
In the end, a fairly comfortable win, five points registered, still 4th, still in charge of our own destiny. Another five points against Worcester guarantees fourth place, unless Bristol beat Irish by an absolute cricket score (117 plus Sale’s margin). I’m still a bit concerned, though, that we lost control of the game for a good twenty minutes after the break. Against a better team than Northampton, that could have been costly. Matches ebb and flow, of course, but the best teams flow much more than they ebb and, when the tide does turn against them, they will quickly wrest the initiative back and pile on more pressure.
Blowing hot and cold on line-outs and kicks is not the stuff of consistently top-notch teams, either. From a perfect game in both departments last week to a distinctly iffy showing this week is not healthy. Its bad enough losing a line-out on the opponent’s five metre line, but if you lose one on your own five-metre… And leaving 11 points out there is criminal. Had all the kicks gone over, it would have been a 17-point margin on 60 minutes, not eight. This time, it didn’t matter, but another day?
The wing experiment wasn’t a disaster. In fact, it worked quite well; Rohan looked quite at home out there and did a good job, apart from missing an obvious pass outside to Luke James after doing all the hard work of breaking through the defence. We still got a try from it, but it a took few extra phases and a bit of gymnastics from Hammers.
Speaking of Hammers, I like him in the team. Maybe he’s not snaking through defences the way he did for Newcastle, and which prompted Dimes to nickname him ‘spaghetti’, but he brings a solidity to the back line, a confidence that lets the other backs concentrate on their job and not have to worry about the wide open spaces. He’s not going to be out of position, he’s not going to drop a high ball. You can trust him. There’s an indefinable air of nous about him that Luke is developing, but doesn’t yet have in full.
Let’s also admit that Coenie is a mediocre loose-head. But, on the other hand, he’s a damn fine tighty. The scrum looked solid with him there and Ross on the left.
Is there any point in mentioning that TC bossed just about every ruck that he was involved in and that Jonno tackled pretty much everything in sight? Well, they did.
Sam2 looked decent in the centres. James of that ilk doing what he does, quietly, efficiently, devastatingly. Sam Hill I’m still working on recognising, and I’m not seeing his contribution as well as I should, so will pass on comment, save to say that the defensive line stayed pretty much intact, so he must be doing something right.
RdP had a 90% decent game. Defended well and did his job in attack, often turning the Saints with a good kick to the backfield. But, oh, those place kicks. Jon Callard must have been tearing his hair out watching those. To be fair, a couple were difficult, wide kicks (and Faf made an even bigger hash of the one he attempted), but the others should have been bankers.
And then there was Faf. As well as the young upstart Mitchell (late of this parish) played, Faf just gave him a lesson in taking advantage of a dominant pack, of delivering quick, (mostly) accurate ball, of distribution, changing the direction of attack and of shutting down the opposition when they have the ball. There was a memorable Saints’ scrum when Faf, in full view of the ref (so, legally), stopped Mitchell getting to the ball and then flattened the 8 when he tried to pick it up. Delicious. Deserved man of the match.
The highlight of the game, though, for me, was Luke nutmegging Biggar for his second try. I nearly wet myself. I mean, Biggar is a terrific player but, by God, he’s an irritating bugger.
So, job done. Another five-pointer, one more to get. We need to go all-out against Worcester; there’s no point saving players for the semi-final if you don’t get to the semi-final. No worrying about what Bath, Bristol and Wasps are doing, five points guarantees fourth and the results in their games can only lead to third or second. Secure the semi and then wonder about the details. If it’s Exeter away, so be it; we’ve won there already this season and we owe them for the other defeats they’ve inflicted on us (if we do get Exeter, it’ll be the fifth time this season).
But first, Worcester. I can hear the little demon clearing his throat already.