This is how the season ends, not with a bang, but a whimper.
Ok, that ignores the small matter of the PRC win, but with the final game of the regular season being called off at the 11th hour, the immediate sense of let-down takes a bit of a shine off of winning what is, after all, a pretty minor competition in the great scheme of things.
Anyway, this seems a good point to take a look back over an eventful season and take stock of where we are and where we’re going.
Once upon a time…
Back in the Second Age of Arda, when the sun and the moon were still young, we awoke from the long sleep of close season to the first rounds of the Premiership Rugby Cup. This has always struck me (in all its incarnations) as a competition in search of a reason. First-class competition or development? Is it there to blood new talent and give fringe players game time, or is it a meaningful bit of silverware?
This year, certainly as far as Dimes was concerned, the answer was “meaningful bit of silverware”. Even though the initial league rounds were basically the pre-season matches, we went with the nominal first team, and no mucking about experimenting with different combinations. And it paid off: Four wins and three bonus points left Sale as top seeds. That meant a home semi in February and, if they progressed, the final would be held at the AJ Bell in March.
Oh, had we known…
That was for the future, though. In the meantime, the Premiership and Europe were on the agenda. We had lost Faf, AJ, Valery, Tom Curry and on-loan Mark Wilson to some minor competition on the other side of the world, but were bolstered by a truckload of huge South Africans newly-arrived and champing at the bit.
The season started with a huge crash back to earth after the success of the PRC, as Sale lost narrowly to Gloucester at home, Rob du Preez’s final
conversion attempt penalty bouncing off the post to deny Sale a draw the win. We then slaughtered Irish at their place, before losing to Bristol away and then beating Wasps at home. Won two, lost two, eleven points at the first break wasn’t too bad, but we were hoping for a bit more.
The next batch of four games went similarly: won two, lost two, eleven points. Significantly, though, the last game of that tranche was a big, 48–10, win over one of our bugbear teams: Harlequins. That seemed to signal an uptick in Sale’s game as they went on a spree of four wins in the next five games, including revenge against Gloucester and a second stuffing of Irish, the net result of which was that Sale found themselves in nose-bleed territory: second behind Exeter.
And that’s where they stayed for the next six months.
That time the world broke down…
After celebrating a convincing win against Irish, we were looking forward eagerly to Quins visiting once again for the PRC final. But, at the last minute, the game was postponed and soon after, the whole country went into lockdown. At first, optimism abounded as we thought that all would be back to normal in a couple of months but it dragged on and on.
And so it went. We were so rugby starved that we organised Friday night watch-alongs on Facebook to old games on the Premiership web site. Played 13, won 13, Sale have never had such a good streak…
Then, some six months after going on hiatus, the league programme restarted on a wet Friday at The Stoop.
A stuttering (re)start…
A combination of the rain persisting down, a new set of “interpretations” of the laws, a six-month break and a general air of “WTF?” everywhere conspired to make the eagerly-awaited resumption of hostilities a boring, mistake-riddled penalty-fest. Sale lost, and then got stuffed at home to Exeter next week and we were wondering if the enforced layoff had removed the wheels from Sale’s wagon and dumped them in a remote canal in an industrial wasteland somewhere.
But then, a run of four wins with two try bonus points (including a memorable win at Wasps) seemed to have consolidated a position in the top four. Keep this up for the last three games and we’re home and flying.
Then Bath came visiting and Sale capitulated, losing a game that was there for the winning. It left them needing 10 points from the last two games to guarantee fourth spot. A good win away at Northampton got us half-way there; it just needed five points at home to Worcester and we were looking at at least a trip to Exeter.
But it was not to be. The disease du jour had its say, the game was postponed and eventually called off: game forfeited, result recorded as a 20–0 defeat and we were left sat in fifth, wondering what might have been. Our only consolation – and a pretty decent consolation, at that – was belatedly beating Harlequins to take the Premiership Rugby Cup.
There was a definite feel that something was different pre- and post-break. It was hard to quantify, but we seemed to not be playing as well, or less confidently, maybe. Something felt not quite right on the playing side of things, so I thought I’d have a quick look and see if I could spot something that changed.
Note: I have deliberately left the final game out of all calculations, since I wanted to look at how we had been playing, and we didn’t play in that game, so it would have skewed the results.
Pre-break, we won 8 games out of 13 (62%) and gained 40 league points at 3.1 points per game. Post-break, we won 5 games out of 8 (63%) and gained 24 league points at 3.0 points per game.
So, not much changed there, then.
Pre-break, we scored 334 points (25.7 per game) including 42 tries (3.2 per game). Post-break, we scored 212 points (26.5 per game) including 26 tries (3.3 per game).
If anything, a slight improvement post-break. So why did it feel as we’d gone off the boil somewhat?
Points conceded per game – pre-break: 14.6, post-break: 20.6. Tries conceded per game – pre-break: 1.5, post-break: 2.3. Average points margin per game – pre-break: 11.1, post-break: 5.9
And there’s a difference. The defence was suffering, making the games tighter, less comfortable, more squeaky bum time. The average margin of defeat was greater post-break, whereas the average margin of victory was smaller.
But why the change? These numbers might give some insight: penalties awarded per match – pre: 11.6, post: 11.9, penalties conceded per match: pre 9.1, post: 13.4. An almost 50% increase in penalties conceded, giving the opposition either points or field position. It looks to me as if everyone adapted more rapidly to the new interpretations than Sale, and that meant that the second phase of the season felt a bit more uncertain than the first.
Hang on, what about…?
I haven’t mentioned the European campaign because it was, quite frankly, a bit of an embarrassment, although Glasgow and La Rochelle were great places to visit, and those weekends will live on in memory and infamy.
I said after the first game (somewhat over a year ago), “we should consider anything less than top six a failure, given the quality on display, even when ring rusty. I’d say top four, but there are enough new players and sufficient disruption this season that I would consider that a bonus, rather than an expectation.”
Had this been a normal year, I honestly think that we would have got that bonus of a top-four place; I’d even say that I think we’d have retained the second place we were sat in for so long, and I’d be writing the report of the semi-final (six months ago), rather than the end-of-season round-up. I’m not unhappy at the outcome – had fate been kinder, I think we would probably have been playing Wasps in the semi-final, rather than Bristol, and it would be Bath fans looking at tier 3 in Europe next season. But we are where we are and I think that is a bloody good return for a year that has been disrupted from day 1. From a normal season in which we clung on to seventh place, to a complete dog’s breakfast of a season where it took a pandemic to deny us top four has got to be seen as a resounding success.
Traditionally at this point, one dishes out the accolades to player of the year and so on. I’m not going to do that, because I thought everyone played their part; this was a real team effort. I will, however, specifically mention the youngsters – Poss, Reed, Roebuck, Doherty (and any others that may have slipped my memory) – for stepping up to the mark and doing the job that was expected like true professionals (remember Wasps away?). The future is bright with such players in it.
And so, to next season, which is likely to be as disrupted and fragmented as this. But the team should have the confidence to tackle what comes (as well as a good dose of viral immunity) and make an even better fist of it in preparation for 2021-22, which will, with luck, be a relatively normal season again.
I wonder what match will be the first that we get to attend in person?
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