We greeted the dawn of the new, Sanderson, ear’ole with a hard-fought, somewhat scrappy, but ultimately very satisfying, win.
It’s always a good feeling to beat Tigers, doubly so at their place. With the strawberry syrup and crushed nuts topping of denying them even a losing bonus, this was a fruit sundae of a game to be enjoyed at leisure. [Enough with the strained analogies, already — Ed.]
Compared with the corresponding fixture last season, I was much less sanguine about Sale’s chances of coming out of this game with anything significant. From the previous couple of games I’d seen, Tigers looked to have remembered their claws and were showing signs of the old, tenacious, stubborn enemy that usually managed to grind out a win.
And, for about 20 minutes, it looked as if that might be the pattern of the game. Neither team was obviously dominant, but Tigers were definitely getting the better of the decisions, including the only penalty kick of the first quarter.
That first quarter culminated with an inevitable, and archetypal, Leicester try, with Reffell bulling over from a short maul. 8–0 to Leicester and hints, there, that this might be a long evening.
But that was it from Tigers for another 50 minutes, during which time Sale replied with 25 points including three tries.
The turnaround started five minutes after that try with a 70-odd metre interception try by Sam James, topped off with a near-touchline conversion by AJ. This seemed to deflate Leicester a bit, as they started to rely more and more on hoisting a high ball and pressurising the catcher. This was effective at first, and they got a few good attacking positions from knock-ons around the 22. There were a couple that I felt were of dubious legality – the tackle coming in fractionally before the feet hit the ground – but the referee seemed happy, so play on.
An AJ penalty gave Sale a two point lead going in to half-time. A close scoreline seemed a fair reflection of the game to this point; Leicester had, I felt, won the first quarter, Sale the second, so a couple of points either way wasn’t too shabby.
Things really started to tip Sale’s way following the break as, within two minutes of the restart, Leicester had Harry Wells yellow carded and Cobus Wiese forced his way over for a try which AJ converted. Nine points ahead with most of the sin bin period to go.
As seems to happen too often, though, Sale failed to capitalise on being one man up and it wasn’t until a couple of minutes after Wells had returned that we got the moment of the match. AJ, almost simultaneously with being flattened, put in a left-footed cross-field kick perfectly to Marland, who skinned Stewart to go over in the corner. AJ hit the post, but we now had a 14-point lead with 25 minutes to go.
Still plenty of time to blow it…
Leicester lost Leatigaga to the bin a couple of minutes after Marland’s try but, once again, Sale failed to capitalise and it wasn’t until the 70th minute that AJ kicked another penalty to make things a little more comfortable. Seventeen points up with ten minutes to go; not quite the required twice the number of remaining minutes, but Leicester were looking a bit lost, so a couple of minutes wasn’t that significant.
Famous last words because, of course, they then scored the try to bring them to ten points behind, with enough time left to snatch it.
They tried hard but Sale’s defence held firm, as it so often does, and we saw the match out, even having time to nearly get that fourth try that would have put the cherry on top. [Stop it! – Ed]
I could see us losing this game a couple of seasons back – gallantly and closely, but still losing. I think what we had in this game was a continuation – a consolidation if you like – of the team that Dimes put together and his vision for how we progress. Whilst it’s a good omen to start Axe’s tenure with a win against old rivals, I don’t think we’d have lost had it still been Deacs in charge.
Let’s be clear, I think that’s a good thing; it suggests that Axe is, as he has said, going to add to and continue Dimes’s vision, not make wholesale change. He will change things, I’m sure, but slowly and organically, rather than the “new brush” approach that seems so popular. There are two main reasons that this is the correct approach for Sale’s situation: 1) Axe, being a new DoR, doesn’t have a “retinue” to bring with him, so there’s nothing to be gained by changing the existing setup, and 2) there’s nothing really broken at Sale. If the team were in disarray, then you’d expect the incoming boss to make big changes, but we’re not, we’re just not quite meshing together. It needs a bit of oil, not a hammer.
On the pitch, we visibly missed the twins: a Curry and a Du Preez would have made a big difference to the comfort with which we handled Leicester’s attack and defence. That we still came out with a win is a testament to the quality and heart of the team, with the replacements doing themselves proud and showing that the future is well-served.
Sam James may be seen as a utility back, and it’s certain that he will do a very good job at full back or at out half or even on the wing but, let’s face it, he excels at outside centre. After a series of decent games, he had a fabulous game, with his try being an example of vision and a deceptive turn of speed.
Marland, for me, is still the winger of choice. Not just his try: as good as AJ’s kick was, it still needed finishing off, and he did it with aplomb. He nearly had two, of course, with some decent footballing skills taking him most of the length of field before a defender managed to get ahead of him and drop on the ball. His work rate is impressive, too. At one point, an attacker managed to slip past, but he turned and caught him before he’d gone another five yards.
Faf, more and more, is looking like the player we came to love. He definitely won the scrum half battle, taking Wiggy on at his own game and outdoing him.
The forwards did a job without being especially spectacular. Sometimes, though, that’s what you want – a bit of hard grunt, laying the groundwork and being the cliff that the opposition attack spends its energy against. Unspectacular? Maybe. Effective? Definitely.
It was also gratifying to see that, for once, Sale were able to change and adapt to the conditions. Thay saw the tactics that Tigers were using and did the same, but better. They turned the ref around: from early on getting the wrong end of decisions to getting the decisions themselves. It didn’t hurt that Jono kept relatively quiet…
All in all, I’m reasonably comfortable with where we are. A win against a Tigers team that’s on the up, even if that win was ground out, was a good result and one that we should be expecting. It’s significant that there was no squeaky bum time in that game: even though there was plenty of time to lose, after the first 20 minutes, it never really felt as if we would, so effectively did we blunt the Leicester attack.
Bristol, however, is going to be an order of magnitude more difficult. They’ve won 6 of 7, they have 4 try bonus points and a points difference of 93. Ninety-three after seven games is an insane record – they are winning games by 15 points on average, so a losing bonus point ought to be seen as a creditable achievement. And I suppose it would be, but I don’t want to succumb to the idea that not winning is good enough. We want to be the best team, and the best teams do not accept that anyone is better than they are.
So, forget that they just absolutely mullered Bath, forget that they are top of the league, forget that they are averaging 27 points a game. Expect to win; that’s what winners do.