TOO. MANY. PENALTIES. Get a grip, guys, this is getting ridiculous.
Name any referee and every supporter of every team will swear blind that said ref has got it in for their team. It’s an immutable law of the universe — by comparison, the 2nd law of thermodynamics is a mere suggestion. So it was that Ian Tempest was the villain who penalised Sale 17 times from about midway through the first half until the end of the game (for context, Saints gave up about three penalties in that time).
Of course, when we stop and take off the blue-tinged glasses, we remember that we are blessed with some truly great referees in the Premiership and an 11–2 penalty count in a forty-minute period probably reflects more on Sale’s indiscipline than on the ref’s overcompensation for being a “local” lad.
It all started so well, too. An AJ penalty on three minutes, followed two minutes later by a try from Akker that is destined to grow in the telling: ninety yards out, a deft inside pop from Ben and there’s Akker, balletically pirouetting past a dozen despairing tackles before gracefully grounding the ball under the posts.
OK, it was more like 30 yards, a warthog under full steam, three tackles and a flop over the line, but allow a man his legend, eh?
Just before halfway through the half, that man Akker is there again, this time popping a pass for Dan DuPreez to charge over the line for try number two and a 17–0 lead. Looking good, carrying on from where we left off and, possibly, an atypical season start—i.e. a win, not an agonising defeat.
But then—guess what?—it started to go wrong, and in fairly typical Sale fashion. Three minutes after Dan scored, Collins went over from the back of a maul to pull seven points back for Northampton.
That was when Sale started racking up a substantial penalty count. Annoyingly, the penalties were ruining Sale pressure, more than helping Saints so we got to half time with no further scoring.
Another penalty a minute into the second half reduced the margin further but, a couple of minutes later, a period of Sale pressure—thankfully uninterrupted by penalties—ended with a looping pass from AJ out to Hammers, who duly scored in the corner. 22–10 became 22–13 shortly after from yet another penalty but, within a minute, AJ produced a perfect show-and-go and an outrageous dummy to run a good 40 metres to score. With the conversion, Sale now had a 16 point lead with 20 minutes to go. Things were looking reasonably comfortable; at least for a minute or so, before Ian Tempest finally got fed up with Sale’s transgressions and sent Jonno away for a 10-minute rest.
A couple of minutes later, inevitably, Northampton pulled back another 7 points, followed by yet another penalty right at the end of the sin bin period. Now only six points ahead with about seven minutes to go—familiar territory for any Sale fan. Fortunately, a penalty for Sale on 75 minutes restored a two-score lead and we saw the game out to an uncomfortable five-point win.
Uncomfortable? Yeah, I stand by that. We had 40% possession and 43% territory, largely because the penalty count (17–7) kept handing the initiative back to Northampton. Metres gained: 245–181, again because we were frequently attacking from our own half, because a penalty had forced us back.
On the other hand, the defence has carried on from where it left off: absolutely immense. 166 tackles, with only 13 missed (compared to 89/24). Ben and Jean-Luc went 10 tackles each with none missed, Dan 9 with none missed, Jonno 14 with 1 missed. Thirteen turnovers to eight. The line-outs worked! (Mostly.)
And then look at the attack. Twenty-four defenders beaten, 11 of those by van Cannonball and Dan duP between them. Four tries—we should have won that by a cricket score. That we didn’t is entirely down to giving up the initiative seventeen times. A bit more discipline and we might have had six or even seven tries and be top of the table, not third. And let’s not blame the ref; that’s just being silly. Referees are not biased. We are our own worst enemy. Yes, I thought the ref got it wrong when the Northampton front row appeared to go sideways in the scrum, but it was Coenie that got penalised. But I’m watching on telly; I’m not standing there, two yards from the event. Maybe Coenie did something that we couldn’t see that caused the shift. Yes, it’s great fun slagging off the ref as part of the moment, part of being there; but afterwards, let’s just calm down and remember that he was probably right (and that’s without needing to invoke rule 2).
Still, it was a five-point win, and that’s important. It’s a measure of how far the team has come that we can be frustrated that a good win wasn’t even better. It’s a good sign that the expectation of a win has almost overtaken the the fear of buggering it up. I say “almost overtaken”—let’s not get carried away, shall we?
Up to Kingston Park next. A place that we rarely do well at, but I’m going to be positive and say that this team should now have a clear expectation of a win, plastic pitch notwithstanding.
Oh, hang on, my little demon’s just woken up…