Posted in match reports

View from the armchair: Sale 20 Worcester 13

No-one’s going to use this game as an example of why anyone should start watching rugby union. It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t exhilarating, it wasn’t particularly interesting. It was, though – and this is important – a win.

There is definitely something amiss with the team at present, whether that is the effect of key players missing through injury or, like everyone else in these trying times, their heads are somewhere else. Whatever the reason, they are not clicking as a team with the result that everything looks cumbersome, forced, staccato.

And yet, despite that, we came away with a win. Don’t underestimate the importance of that achievement; time was, a stuttering performance like that would have ended up with another 1 in the ‘L’ column.

This was a battle of defences – immovable object meets immovable object, so to speak. Given that we had a pair of attacks operating a couple of spark plugs short of a V6, it was a surprise that we actually saw any tries at all. A 6–3 borefest would not have come as a surprise.

The first quarter was pretty even, with a few attacks from both sides, but the defences held firm and they were comfortably repelled. All we had in the way of scoring was a 40+ metre penalty kick by AJ.

One thing we had seen, though, was a spark of the old Faf; a bit of the old fire showing through, some sniping and aggressive tackling. That came to a head a couple of minutes into the second quarter when he went on a trademark burst down the narrow side and then, a couple of phases later, nipped through a tiny gap for the first try. AJ converted, and it looked as if we might be in for an entertaining evening.

Nope. An AJ penalty to take him past 500 Premiership points and a late Weir penalty were the only other scores in the first half.

Then, in the second half, we had nothing except a Worcester penalty for 35 minutes before a bit of sustained Sale pressure on the Worcester line ended with Jono going over for the try. With the conversion, that put Sale 14 points ahead. Fourteen points, three or four minutes to go, fourteen is greater than two times four, so we can relax.

Yeah, right.

Two minutes to go, Worcester five-metre line-out, maul, rumble, rumble, Curry pulls it down, penalty try, Tom to the bin. What’s annoying about that is that, had they kept it up and Worcester had scored, it was an eminently missable conversion and the following minute would not have been quite so tense.

But, seven points in it with the restart to come; we couldn’t lose, but a draw would us no favours at all. Worcester tried their best for a few bum-clenching phases, but it became obvious that the Sale defence was not going to fold, so Weir accepted the inevitable and booted the ball out to accept the losing bonus point.

I think the thing that struck me most about this game was that, for about an hour at least, it proved that it is possible to have scrums that complete at the first time of asking. For that hour, if I recall correctly, every scrum bar one went crouch, bind, set, ball in, ball out, get on with the game. The sole exception was a free-kick given against Sale for “not hooking”. It was most refreshing. Things got a bit sloppy after the hour but, even so, it never plumbed the depths of the Exeter-Bristol game the following day.

As I mentioned earlier, Faf was looking a bit more like his old self – always a welcome sight. Good to see Josh B play the full 80 and put in a big performance with it. The line-out appeared to be perfect, as well. Is this because Akker’s now got a big bugger to aim at, or is it Josh’s steadying presence that’s made the difference?

I thought we missed the du Preez twins; Jono and Tom made loads of tackles and carries, but Dan and/or Jean-Luc have a certain something that gives defences a bit more pause.

And let’s hear it – again – for Bevan Rodd. Ross H is going to have to work some to get the no. 1 jersey back off of him, if he carries on at this rate. He more than held his own in the scrum and scored a couple of jackalling penalties, to boot. Tom is going to have to watch out, there. This guy is one we definitely need to keep hold of.

One more highlight: Wayne Barnes screaming “USE IT!” so loudly that I swear I could hear it again a few seconds later through the front room window.

On the deficiencies of play, I don’t want to say much, other than to note that it still appears the team lacks patience or trust in itself to keep the ball for multiple phases. On the occasion when they did show some patience, Jono scored. There also still seems to be an issue of when the flow of play turns against them, they can’t pull it back and so they go a bit further under the cosh, anxiety builds up and a bit of panic sets in. We saw this in the second half as Worcester started to get a bit more of the ball and Sale seemed – subtly – to start trying to force things a bit, with the result that they started to make more mistakes.

Learn to bend with the flow of the game, to ride the inevitable periods when the opposition are in the ascendency and recognise the moment when it’s ripe to seize control again. Fix that and we’ll be reet.

As of writing, we may or may not be playing Edinburgh in the Champions Cup on Saturday. It may be that matches involving French teams will be postponed or cancelled, or it may be that the whole thing will be shifted to later in the year.

If the game goes ahead, I want to see Sale go for the win. Not just because I don’t like the “oh, we’ll put out a token side in this competition because we want to focus on that one”. I think a side that has pretensions to greatness does not pass up any opportunity for more silverware. We may not be able to progress in the Champions cup, but we can have a very real stab at the Challenge cup, so we should go for it.

There’s also the issue that winning is a habit. If you’re prepared to accept defeat in a competition you don’t care about, then you won’t get that habit. The great sides simply expect to win everything. Losing is a failure that they do not accept. We need to be like that, or we’ll never amount to anything.

All guns blazing, guys. Don’t take “it doesn’t matter” for an answer.

Or an excuse.

Postscript: EPCR have suspended the second two rounds of pool games, and Premiership Rugby have decided to have a two-week break. I don’t know whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. On the one hand, momentum is lost; on the other, this may be useful for getting heads straight again.



Photographer and science geek. Rugby fan (Sale Sharks).