Did anyone (seriously) expect a win away to Toulon? Even without the internal upheavals of this week, it was always going to need a Herculean effort to get 4 or 5 points from this game.
For his first selection, Deaks gave us an… experimental… centre partnership with a rare appearance from Sam Hill inside Rob du Preez. But, apart from Rodd at loose-head and Cliffy at scrum half, this was the same team that started against Irish last week.
Early play was not promising. Line-out problems continue and Toulon looked threatening for five or six minutes. But then Sale started to string a few moves together and looked threatening themselves.
There’s a difference, though, between “threatening” and “efficient”. Unforced errors and poor discipline nullified some good moves, and we got to halfway through the first half scoreless. Then Carbonel kicked the first of four penalties in the match – the penalties that would prove to be the difference between the scores at the end.
AJ missed a chance of his own a minute later before Toulon went six points up with a second penalty. Then, somewhat inevitably, came the try from Villiere. A bit of a brain fart by Luke James and, for the second week in a row, some atypically lax defending had Sale shipping 13 points inside of ten minutes. Come half time, that had gone up to 16 points, courtesy of another penalty from Carbonel.
The first half of the second period carried on much the same, with Carbonel kicking a fourth penalty three minutes after the resumption, and Moyano bulling over for the try ten minutes later. 26–0 with 20 minutes to go. To me, that didn’t seem a fair reflection of the game. Yes, I thought Sale seemed a bit flat, lacking impetus, at times (or maybe I was just reading into it something that wasn’t there), but they had played well enough to be in closer touch. Indeed, they should have been had they not squandered several chances through indiscipline or inaccuracy.
But we got some… justice, I suppose, in the form of a brace of tries from Yarde and Phillips. Both well-worked, and examples of what Sale are capable of if only they can string things together for more than five phases without doing something silly. That left Sale ten points behind with ten minutes to go but, try as they might, they couldn’t get the extra score to earn what would have been a deserved bonus point.
With the way the competition is structured, the best I think that Sale can hope for is a place in the Challenge cup playoffs (we’re tenth currently, eighth gets a place in the Challenge cup). That’s still something worth fighting for: it’s more prestigious, I’d say, than the Premiership Cup, so there’s all to play for in the remaining three games.
This was a curate’s egg of a performance – much to admire, but a lot that was less than stellar. Faf made a difference when he came on, looking a lot more like his old self than he has over the last few weeks. Dugdale had a good game and made a case for putting his name on the team sheet for next week. His offload for Marland’s try was sublime.
Sam Hill made a rare appearance and, while he didn’t set the world on fire, he made a decent showing overall. RdP at 13 doesn’t seem that daft, either (I’ll gloss over the awful final kick to touch for a last-gasp line-out).
And speaking of line-outs…
I remember a game back in the Heywood Road days – I think it was against Saracens. Every time they got the ball, they were happy to just kick for touch as they knew they would get the ball back in a good position. I think we probably turned over every single throw that day. The current line-out hasn’t reached those depths yet, however bad it appears to be. The problem is not just inaccurate throwing (it’s not actually that bad – in the 80% range for hitting the jumper), there’s a problem with controlling the ball once it has been caught. Dropping it, missing the receiver, not setting up the maul correctly, these are the little things with a big impact.
I’m going to hold off on judgement for a while, though. We are operating without a specialist line-out runner/jumper: since the restart, we’ve lost the Bearded Wonder, Josh has been absent for a year, Lood has barely made an appearance and now we’re waiting for the first appearance of ‘Burj’ du Preez. Jean-Luc and Jonno do a decent enough job, but they’re not specialists. I’m assuming that JP will fill that role at least until Josh comes back. If we’re still making a Horlicks of it once he’s bedded in, then I’ll admit that we have a problem.
So far, we’ve played four games, only one of them at home, and come out with two wins, one narrow, last-minute, defeat, and a loss to a still-powerful French team at their place. There are two more home games to come to even things up. They’re not going to be easy, but none are, particularly. Let’s see where we are at full-time on the 27th.