Posted in match reports

View from the armchair: Bristol 13 Sale 20

Good defences win matches. It’s as simple as that. When an irresistible force meets an immovable object the force dissipates like a zephyr.

Bristol must have come into this game still buzzing from a 40+ point demolition of Bath the week before. They had already earned four try bonus points from seven games, whereas Sale’s last six scores were between 20 and 25 points.

Numerous pundits were, rightly, lauding Bristol’s attack; their ability to strike from deep, to create a score from anywhere on the field, their ability to break tackles…

Less loudly praised, though, was Sale’s stingy defence. Oh, there is recognition of course, but a brick wall isn’t as sexy as a Lamborghini, so it tends to go under the radar as far as the casual watcher is concerned.

But there’s only going to be one winner if you drive a Lamborghini at a brick wall…


I’m sure Bristol were fully aware of Sale’s defence, but I’m also pretty certain that they felt they could penetrate it; after all, not only had they thoroughly humiliated Bath, they had also beaten another notoriously miserly defence—Exeter’s—away; and quite handily, at that.

So perhaps it came as a bit of a surprise that, for the first 15 minutes, Bristol had the bulk of possession but nothing to show for it. Sale looked at what faced them and thought, “bring it”.

Bristol got their reward for their early dominance courtesy of another brain fart from Jono. He was warned, the team were warned, but still he did it and got a ten-minute rest for his troubles. That left us a man short defending a 5-metre line-out and, inevitably, Byrne flopped over for the try. Sale were now 7–0 down with the bulk of the sin-bin still to go.

In times past, that might have signalled further scores for Bristol and an increasingly difficult task for Sale. But there’s something different about the team now. It’s hard to quantify, but there’s an air of increased confidence; a feeling that a setback is always recoverable. The only way I can explain it is to note that, at the end of the game, we were four points up with five minutes to go, but it didn’t feel like squeaky bum time.

So it was that, rather than go further behind, two AJ penalties meant that Jono came back on the field to a one-point deficit, which then became a two-point advantage by half-time, courtesy of AJ’s boot again. Bristol did go close shortly before half-time, but sterling defence kept them short of the line.

Sale lost Cobus Wiese to a failed HIA early in the second half, but Philips took over the role seamlessly.

Things seemed pretty even for the first twenty minutes or so, with only another AJ penalty to wake up the scorers. We then had a run of penalty decisions going against Sale, and kicks from two them meant that Sale were now one point behind again with only six or seven minutes to go.

And then we got that lovely period of play that Sale fans will be watching again and again. A break from Dugdale, a cross-field kick to the right wing by AJ, volleyed back infield by Hammers, dropped on by Cliffy, recycled in the forwards before Cliffy passes to AJ, who sends a peach of a pass to Luke out wide. There was only going to be one ending then.

Four points up with four minutes to go should equal squeaky bum time according to the “twice as many points as minutes left” rule but, honestly, I wasn’t worried that the Bristol attack would buck the trend of the previous 75 minutes and trouble the Sale try line. That’s an unusual and rather pleasant feeling for a Sale supporter. When Sale were awarded a kickable penalty in the last minute, it was a no-brainer that AJ would go for the posts and so run out the clock.

Before this game, I had thought that, if Sale were to win, it would be a relatively low-scoring affair. I based that on the way that Sale’s attack is not firing at the moment: we’re struggling to put together sufficient phases and sufficient moves to really threaten a scoring spree. So winning this was going to depend on restricting Bristol to less than about 20 points and being able to score our usual 20–25.

Sometimes my foresight scares me. (OK, I got something right once…)

Let’s just say that, first and foremost, this was a whole team performance. It almost feels churlish to single players out, but we do need to make note of some encouraging performances.

Luke seems to have regained his mojo. After a few games looking a bit lost, he was back to being sharp, confident and reliable. Scoring on his 50th game was a deserved reward for his effort. In the space of a week, we’ve had Sam scoring on his 150th, Joe Root’s 200 in his 100th test and now Luke’s effort. A good sporting week.

Also showing welcome mojo-related improvements was our many-trick pony, the golden unicorn himself. Not only was there a bit more verve in his scrum half play, but a couple of monster tackles were worthy of adding to the playlist.

Sam Hill probably suffers in not being quite as… obvious… as Rohan or Manu, so tends to disappear into the background a bit. Whilst maybe not being as punchy a centre as those two, he was certainly doing the hard work of defending pretty effectively. Sometimes, that’s what you really need.

Speaking of which, Marland was in there, everywhere again. Looking for work, being the one to shield the isolated ball carrier, popping up wherever he might be needed, five tackles. I know this is becoming a bit of a Yarde fan zone but, if it’s true that he’s about to sign a new contract, that’s the best news since Faf signed a long contract a couple of years back.

AJ had his best game in ages. Intelligent kicking from hand, good kicking from the tee, some good distribution and six tackles. For a little(-ish) guy, he punches hard.

The forwards put in some immense shifts, too. Jono—brain fart aside—made 18 tackles, but also Cam with 13 and Jean-Luc and WillGriff with 10 each. The line-out went well, apart from one dubiously-called not straight.

The scrum is still an area of concern, though. Whether it’s endemic or whether referees are just expecting it to be Sale’s fault, something needs to be addressed, either technique or nous. Right now, the scrum can be a liability, especially when it’s our feed and the decision goes against us.

Fix the scrum and get the backs firing properly in attack and someone is going to be on the wrong end of a right mullering very soon.

Finally, and unusually, a word about the referee. Luke Pearce is rapidly becoming one of the best refs around, on a par with Barnesy and JP. I thought he handled the game really well, calling ‘use it’ when the ball was available, not waiting until the scrum half had rolled it all the way to the back of the caterpillar. He seems to have a good rapport with the players and keeps the game moving – no slow scrums and constant restarts here. As Angie put it: “Pearce is running the match like he’s everyone’s Mum who has had enough of lockdown already and is low on wine”. More like him, please.

That’s four wins on the trot, now: five wins in the last six, four of them away from home. Time was, we’d have been ecstatic at the thought of four away wins in a season. To get four in the first eight games is the stuff that dreams are made on. Now we need to kick on and keep the streak going by beating Bath at the AJ Bell next Friday. Losing is not an option: we’re three behind Bristol and four ahead of Quins (who we play away the week after Bath) – we need to keep the pressure on.

Bring it.



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