Posted in match reports

View from the armchair: Wasps 19 Sale 20

There’s a definite sense of change in the air, and I don’t just mean that spring is on the way. There was something about the way that Sale reacted to the events of the second half that was different to what we’ve seen before.

Time was – and by that, I mean a couple of weeks ago – a Sale team that kept getting hit by sucker punches the way this one was would have folded. Heads would have dropped, panic would have set in, mistakes made, game lost handsomely.

But that didn’t happen here. And that’s significant; it says that something has changed within the collective crania and that they are now doing the Kipling* thing, rather than the Brave Sir Robin thing.

*No, not cakes. Sheesh. Philistine.

Before we get too carried away, though, let’s pause to recognise that Sale would probably have lost this game, for all their resilience, had not Wasps made a couple of tactical errors. Kicking penalties when one or two men up, rather than going for the corner is probably the mark of a team lacking confidence. Whatever the reason, only taking three points each time – instead of a possible seven – kept Sale in touch, only six rather than sixteen points behind at the start of that fateful last five minutes.

With that caveat out of the way, let’s now talk about how they kept their heads up and took arms against a sea of troubles, held firm and finally demonstrated the sheer, unadulterated guts to snatch it at the last gasp. It made for a good armchair cardio workout, certainly.

After a first half that was… well, pretty average-going-on-boring, really, the second half was just ridiculous. You know how sometimes when you want to cross a road and a car comes along and then, as it’s going past you and you’re going to cross behind it, another car appears, and then another, all just at the last minute? That was the second half. As soon we thought we were going back to a full complement, another yellow card came along. Thirty minutes of the second half spent short-handed…

And now, I suppose we need to talk about those cards. Fifteen cards in fifteen games is not a good record. On the flip side, though, the cards we got in this game were of a different type to many of the others: almost ‘unfortunate’. By that, I mean that they were more in the nature of rugby incidents, rather than acts of stupidity. We just suffered a perfect storm of four of them in quick succession.

Watching live, I was feeling incredulous in increasing measure as card after card was wielded by referee Ridley. Screams of ‘WHAAAAAAATTT THE —?!’ echoed round Timperley, causing local dogs to start barking and cats to look up sardonically.

On reflection, though, I can’t fault the ref for any of them. Let me explain…

AJ’s was quite simple: he swings an arm up, deflecting the ball and materially affecting the course of play. That’s been a yellow since the year dot. Similarly Byron. Anyone who thinks he had even the remotest of chances to regather that ball needs to have their blue-tinted glasses checked – they’ve gone opaque. You go for the intercept one-handed like that and you run the risk of a card. It’s instinctive, I know, but that’s the way it’s been for ages. You take the risk, you pay the price.

Can we all just agree that Akker’s was a nailed-on yellow that could, but for an inch or two, have been red?

And then there’s Luke’s…

Rugby is a hard, physical game – we all agree on that, and it’s one of the reasons we enjoy watching it. What we’re going through now is the rugby authorities finally waking up to the elephant that is the potential life-changing effects of such a physical, brutal sport.

We all want to see good, hard collisions, but there is now a recognition that none of that is worth the long-term effects of repeated head injury. Or, rather, the recognition is that there actually are serious, long-term effects and that, maybe, we need to try to minimise the risk.

With that in mind, let’s consider why Ridley’s assessment was correct: Luke was at fault. One of the things that world rugby is trying to do is to lower the point of contact in the tackle, preferably to below the ball, thus taking the impact away from the head area. That’s really only going to be achieved if players tackle with a horizontal back, not an upright one. If you’re upright, your head, shoulder and upper arm are nearer the other player’s head and the possibility of contact is increased. Go in with your back horizontal and aim for the midriff, and head contact is lessened (it’s up to you to keep your own head out of the way…).

That’s why Ridley made a point of saying that Luke hadn’t bent over. Certainly, he had bent his legs and dropped his body, but he was still upright. Upright, even partially squatting, is risky in terms of head contact. From there, the system leads to the inevitable conclusion. It’s like Byron’s card: you take the risk of going in to the tackle upright and you pay the price if it goes wrong.

I mean, I get it: you stay upright so that you can respond if the attacker changes direction, as happened here. That means we have a conflict between the need to defend effectively and the need to avoid potential head injury. For me, that means that defensive coaches have to find new ways of defending. If they can’t, then maybe we get used to the idea of players committing to a low tackle and missing more often. You never know, it might open the game up a bit more.

I’m afraid that this match report has turned into a bit of a rant about balancing player welfare against a hard, physical sport that none of us wants to see reduced to mere touch rugby. To be fair, there wasn’t much in the match itself to write about – it was a pretty attritional thing, rarely getting out of midfield and with neither side establishing much in the way of dominance at any point.

What we did see, as I’ve said before, was a noticeable change in the way the team reacted to things going tits-up. We saw team that stood up, responded and, most importantly, believed in themselves. Even that final maul: it went backwards about five metres at first. Before, that would probably have signalled it dropping and the chance fizzling out. This time, however, they rallied, got the push on and we all know the result.

Rob did his best to hit both posts with the conversion but managed to swerve it between them, completing a 100% kicking record and a famous victory.

If this is how the new regime is going to pan out, let’s have more of it. Axe seems to have brought a new philosophy to the club – one that bodes well for the future. I’m now eagerly looking forward to the next few games to see if this really is the start of spring.

Oh, and we’re THIRD!



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