Playing Exeter is always a recipe for the return of squeaky bum time. This one came with extra helpings of squeak and a cherry on top.
I always feel conflicted after games like this. On the one hand, focussing on the obvious problems still inherent in the team seems churlish when one should be celebrating a win against the reigning double champions. But against that, to focus on celebrating a hard-fought win without acknowledging that problems are still endemic is to paper over the cracks and store up even more trouble for the future.
The team that started this game had only 1½ changes from the team that started against Bristol oh, so long ago. (Dan for Jean-Luc, like Ben for Tom, counts as half a change.) After the experimentation of the previous two weeks, we were hopeful that this return to a proven team would shore up those little gaps in defence that had been the downfall against Bath and Quins. And, mostly, that proved to be the case. With a couple of exceptions, the defence held firm and did a good job of nullifying Exeter’s potent backline. People tend to concentrate on their pack as the dominant force of the team, but they have some pretty tasty players in the backs, too.
If you want to epitomise what it is that Faf brings to a team, his pass to Horse after four minutes was a perfect example. A quick tap and a pass that found probably the only straight line through a gaggle of defenders perfectly into McGuigan’s breadbasket for him to have the simplest of flops over the line for the opening try.
Then Cordero MkII skips through four or five tackles to give Exeter the lead and there’s a collective “oh, oh” from the watching Sale fans. Even more so when they rumble easily over from a 5m line-out and go into a 12–8 lead.
There’s a reason they’re the double champions…
A couple of minutes later, “oh, oh” became “oh, no, not again” as Jono was shown his mumbledy-mumpth yellow card for the season. The prospect of ten minutes with 14 men against this team was not a happy one.
In the end, we had less than a minute at a disadvantage as Yeandle hit Langdon in the head with his shoulder after flying into a ruck. Red card all the way.
This incident raised another point that’s been nagging at me for a while. The reason Curtis’s head was where it was when Yeandle connected was that he was being neck-rolled out of the way. Had Yeandle not intervened, the culprit could well have been shown a yellow card. So why is the punishment for an offence dependent on other factors? Just because Yeandle was sent off doesn’t make the neck roll any less of a punishable offence. So why not punish it, just because a greater offence was also committed?
Similarly, you’ll often see a cardable offence not punished just because an advantage resulted in a try. Had the move broken down, the ref goes back for the penalty and cards the offender but, if the try is scored, he stays on the field. Why? If the offence is worthy of a card, then it should get the card, regardless of other factors.
I would be interested to see if any studies have been made into whether referees are more or less lenient on similar offences at different points in the game. There is some circumstantial evidence that they are more likely to give a penalty for any given offence in the last minutes than they would earlier on. Something to do with the state of the game at that point. In fact, I heard Ian Tempest in the Saints-Bath game say something along the lines of “we need to get this right because it’s so close”. Sorry, Tempo, but that’s fallacious reasoning. Maybe the only reason that the game is that close is because you didn’t give the same amount of care to another decision when things weren’t so tight.
The referee should treat an offence the same whether it’s committed in the first minute or the 89th. If you would have let it go in the first minute, you should let it go in the 89th; if you would ping it in the 89th, you should ping it in the first.
I mention all this because of the final five minutes of the game. This is not me being a sore winner, BTW, it’s something that’s been bugging me for a while. I’m also not casting any aspersions on the ref – I think he would have done the same had the situation been reversed, so I’m in no way suggesting that he was playing Fergie time (or Baxter time, as the case may be).
Sale 25–20 up with about a minute left to go and camped on the Exeter line. The ref blows for a penalty to Exeter. We then get a sequence of something like five consecutive penalties against Sale ending up with an Exeter line-out on the five-metre line.
Now, I am convinced (on very little hard evidence, admittedly) that at least one of those offences would have been let go had it occurred in, say, the 54th minute, and we would not subsequently have been hiding behind the sofa thinking “they’re going to snatch it, aren’t they?”
Fortunately (he says with blue-tinted specs on) the ref then missed a bit of skullduggery in that final line, Exeter knocked on and Sale fans could finally unclench those buttocks, peer out from behind the sofa and breathe again.
I thought Lood was immense in this game. He seemed to be everywhere, ball in one huge mitt, running over defenders – 12 carries for 38 metres – and taking down attackers: 17 tackles, second only to Jono. It’s hard to miss him, so it’s easy to see the work he did. Less easy to spot is Curtis Langdon, but he also had a[nother] strong game. Between him and Ashman, I have no fears for the future of hooking at Sale, even before factoring in the return of Tommy Taylor.
Cam Neild isn’t quite a Curry, but he does a bloody good impression.
The backs still continue to fire on three cylinders, although Luke James just looks completely in his element at full-back. AJ’s kicking kept us in the game at crucial points and he put in twelve tackles. It’s something that tends to be under-appreciated about AJ, that he is a key defensive player and does it well.
Faf is Faf, but I do sometimes wonder if he takes too much of the playmaker role to himself and doesn’t spread the responsibility enough. Compare: AJ – 8 passes, Faf – 58, and I’ll lay odds that 50 of those went to a forward. Even though we had a man advantage in the backs for most of the game, we kept the ball in the forwards. It’s a bit like watching St André’s Sale at times.
I think we’re unfortunate in having both Rohan and Manu out injured. We rely on physicality in the centres, not guile, so we misfire when we don’t have access to that big bosher at 12. We either need to learn how to adapt the back play to lighter centres or we’re just going to have to accept that we will rely on the forwards when the big guys aren’t available. I know which I’d prefer, but I suspect that the personnel we have makes that difficult. Without one or two real flyers, in the Jonny May mould, we can’t build a fast-moving backline and instead have to rely on physical centres punching holes and tying up defenders. Go through them because we can’t go around them.
Still, fourth at the halfway point. Could (should) have been higher, but I’ll take it for now.
Let’s see if we can kick on for the second half of the season and, maybe, get more than a single try bonus point in the remaining matches.