It’s often been said (usually more in hope than reality) that, one day, Sale will click and someone’s going to get mullered.
Six tries, plus three that were agonisingly wiped off for minor infractions and several that left you wondering ‘how did they not score there?’, isn’t quite a mullering, but it’s a pretty emphatic statement that, yes, we can play a bit.
Far be it from me to complain about a 28-point victory margin, but… we want more! More tries, more performances like that, more performances better than that.
I will admit to being a bit nervous going into this game. The previous week’s inexplicable inability to turn possession into points, added to a decent showing by Irish in their game, did nothing to convince me that this one was a given – not even Sale’s traditionally good record against them.
If an early try by Hammers went some way towards calming the nerves, the next 25 minutes ramped the anxiety back up again.
Are there any stats for line-outs buggered up immediately after nearly scoring? It just feels to me that one way to guarantee a squiffy or over-long, or too-short throw is to be awarded a penalty in the five-metre zone and kick for touch.
After 15 minutes, we were all celebrating a beautiful try from McGuigan, following a lovely cross-field kick by Rob, only to see it chalked off for the tiniest of knock-ons in the act of scoring. Five minutes later, Lood scored – except he didn’t, because that one was also scrubbed.
And then five minutes after that, Rob misses a fairly easy penalty and we’re all casting our minds back to the previous week’s efforts: all thud and blunder, no results.
Finally, after half an hour, Lood reached out a big paw from a ruck and this time it wasn’t wiped off. Rob then did something he seems to specialise in: bouncing the kick off of a post. How many times has he managed that, now?
Five minutes later, in a final redressing of injustices, Horse scored from a deft little chip over the defence by Faf. Another chalked-off try by Jean-Luc (and what a peach of a try it was/would have been) then took us into the half-time break.
A sixteen point lead at half time should have been a welcome scoreline, but it felt somehow too little. Probably because we’d ‘scored’ six, but only three counted, there was a sense of still pushing against something, that there was still something resisting the flowing, open game that we are so obviously capable of, but equally obviously having trouble unleashing.
Two minutes into the second half and Coenie gets himself binned for a no-arms tackle, bringing Harper into the fray. Again, I will admit to a little trepidation at this. A young prop, first outing in the Premiership, coming on probably a bit ahead of when he expected to, up against a couple of gnarly old stagers; the omens were not propitious.
However, to his credit, the lad – as they say – done good. He looked completely unfazed by the experience, held his end up well and put in a good performance, with some decent hits and generally made a nuisance of himself.
That was for later, though. At this point, down to 14 men, the lead (which had already been reduced by three about ten seconds after the restart) was looking a bit fragile. But this is Sale, so, of course, they won the sin-bin 7–0 with a lovely opportunist, bonus-point try from Arron Reed. What a difference it makes having a winger with a bit of gas.
Games naturally ebb and flow, and Irish started to take over for the following 10 minutes or so, showing some of the flair that had been more-or-less absent to this point. But Sale’s defence held firm as ever, and when Horse intercepted a slightly loose pass to run down the wing for the fifth try, Irish deflated again and even my little demon went off to take a nap in the corner somewhere.
Things started to get a bit scrappy and Irish pulled one back on 70 minutes, but a penalty a couple of minutes later from AJ made it a 21-point game with 8 minutes to go. It was pretty much in the bag at this point.
Then Harrison got himself binned, followed a minute later by Reed, and someone was busily untying the bag and loosening the drawstring.
But this is Sale, so what happens? Horse gets his hat-trick, AJ pops over the conversion, the game’s over and we’ve got our most comprehensive win of the season.
So there we had it: a tantalising glimpse of the team that Sale could be – and will be, I’m sure. A trouncing of a team that have been doing pretty well for themselves this season – sixth coming into the game, only three points behind Sale – but a trouncing that felt as if there was another level to go up to.
It’s pretty much impossible to pin down any one reason why things seemed to work this week when they singularly failed to connect last week. Rob du Preez at 10? Maybe; there’s some evidence that Sale score more tries when he’s there, rather than AJ, but I wonder if that’s more to do with the way the opposition defence react to his presence, as opposed to AJ. After all, two tries were opportunistic against-the-run-of-play efforts, one came from a ruck and another directly from a Faf kick, so it’s not down to differences in distribution skills. At least, not directly – see remark earlier about the defence positioning itself differently.
I thought the back row looked much more balanced than probably at any time this season. We don’t want a back row that includes two twins (either pair) at the same time – they’re too similar. Jean-Luc had possibly his best game so far at 8 and Cam Neild keeps doing what he does effectively, unobtrusively and devastatingly. Jono, of course, was Jono.
Rodd continues to impress and Akker’s yips throwing in have mostly calmed down. Coenie is still a bit of a penalty magnet. Lood probably should have a rest now, having only recently come back from serious surgery, but he’s making it really, really hard to drop him. JP seems to have gone missing – perhaps it’s time to bring him back into the mix.
Faf was getting back to his old self but still seems a little out of sorts to me. Is the lockdown and the inability to travel back to South Africa getting to him a bit? We should, I think, cut him some slack in the present situation: he remains a key player and a delight to watch.
If Rob could borrow AJ’s magic kicking boots, that would help a lot. Sam James, like Faf, seems a bit off his game recently. Still worth his place, but a bit below his own high standards.
Harper, as I said before, has not only put his hand up, he’s stood up, marched to the front, grabbed the mike and told everyone he’s arrived.
Player of note this week, though, goes to Connor Doherty. Slotted into the inside centre role like it was tailor-cut for him. Good lines, mean tackling and a couple of juicy breaks to whet the appetite for more.
Rodd, Harper, Doherty, Reed… the future’s looking not half decent.
Wasps next, down in Coventry. They’re looking a bit fragile at the moment and this may be Sale’s best chance to consolidate their league position and to get revenge for the earlier game at the AJ Bell.