Posted in match reports

View from the armchair: Harlequins 24 Sale 12

OK, it looks like losing is an option. Two defeats and we’re out of the top four for the first time this season. Will it, ultimately, be worth the experiment?

I say ‘experiment’ because I assume that that’s what Alex has been doing the past couple of weeks. Stir the pot, see what floats to the top.

Sitting here, watching with increasingly sinking heart as try after try goes over in a short space of time; as yet another promising move fizzles out after a stupid transgression or incompetent handling, it can be difficult to maintain a sense of equanimity and a long-term viewpoint.

It’s easy – and very tempting – to rant and rave after a performance in which the entire game was lost in one 12-minute period. Quins managed only three points in the other 68 minutes. Yes, I know it took Sale 61 minutes to even trouble the scorers, but we were let down earlier by the aforementioned stupidity and incompetence. How many moves ended in knock-ons and fumbles or penalties for holding on or in at the side or—

I suppose we have to talk about it. I will mention in passing that I lost a lot of respect for Dombrandt because of his apparent over-reaction. That aside, we have to ask the question of whether Jean-Luc is becoming a liability. You could see that his was an offence born out of frustration, but that should not be an excuse for a professional player. Add to that joining the lineout after being warned at least twice to stay back and you’ve got someone who needs to be calmed down. Maybe Jonno should talk to him during the game; spot the signs, have a word, keep him on the pitch – that should be part of the captain’s role, surely. Perhaps he does and it still doesn’t work.

We were fortunate that Quins were unable to capitalise on their advantage and put us even further under the cosh.

The incident did make me wonder one thing, though: how long until forwards figure out the best way loiter at the ruck such that they cannot be cleared out without head contact? There is also a fundamental problem in that the way the laws steer the competition at the ruck risks head contact. There needs to be a change to stop the Exocet clear-out by limiting how a player can be part of a ruck. I’ve seen suggestions that we should go back to the old way: bound over the ball and push – an ad-hoc scrum, if you like. Maybe this would work but the simple fact is that, if you want to get rid of head contact at the ruck, you need to get rid of the flying clear-out and to get rid of that, you need to legislate away the factor that causes it, namely players loosely attached at the edges or looming over the middle, presenting targets for a bone-and-muscle missile.

On the brighter side, the defence was much less porous than last week – two of Quins tries were opportunist counter-attacks (I’m not going to blame Marland for the ball bouncing awkwardly; that could happen to anyone and it would make the best of players look silly). I wouldn’t normally mention forward passes in try build-ups, but having seen a try in another match wiped off for a pass that was less forward than two of the Quins tries, I’m feeling a little bit aggrieved.

Also, Raffi Quirke was impressive and was desperately unlucky not to score with a lovely break. Hammers was solid at the back, but couldn’t make any progress carrying. The back line is still not meshing properly: I hope that’s on Axe’s priority list.

Alongside Quirke, Rodd and Ashman are increasingly looking like keepers and it was good to see Lood back, even if he was being a bit of a penalty machine. We’re missing a Curry big time at the breakdown and also a big monster (*cough*Rohan*cough*) in the centres.

Some intriguing stats: against Bath, Sale had 66% possession and 67% territory; against Quins, 63% and 64%. Against Bath, Sale made 508 metres from 74 carries, against Quins, 376 off 79. Bath had to make 212 tackles to Sale’s 87, Quins 212 to 70. And yet we lost both games – this must be telling us something.

Buggered if I know what, though.

I said at the top that I think – hope – that the last two games have been Alex experimenting to get a feel for the players he’s now in charge of in a pressure situation. It’s all very well watching them in training, but that’s a far cry from being out there for real.

But I don’t think this experiment, if experiment it is, has been about anything as simplistic as just identifying who’s staying and who’s not getting a renewal. No, having listened to Sanderson, I expect that he will have been looking to see where the rough edges are, where things aren’t meshing smoothly and he’ll be working out personalised, targeted training programmes designed to make a team out of individuals. No blame, just understand where things aren’t right and work out how to fix it.

We can get a bit despondent about two defeats like that after such a good start, but what if the understanding he’s gained from the two defeats allows him put out teams that – maybe – win three games in the future that we might otherwise have lost. We’ll never know that, but now is probably the best time to take the risk, while there’s still time to pull things back.

Three weeks ago, I realistically expected to come out of the last three games with a win and two defeats. I just expected the win to be against Bath, not Bristol. In that regard, we’re where I feared we’d be, no worse. Small comfort, I suppose, but I’ll take what I can get.

Here’s hoping that Axe has seen enough to know what he needs to do and that we will see the start of the fightback and the assault on the top spot this week against Exeter.



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