Wow. Just… Wow. Don’t pinch me; if I’m dreaming, it’s a wonderful dream, so leave me be.
I’ll admit up front that that performance was beyond my wildest expectation. I thought we stood a chance of scraping out a win, but to dominate and bully a team featuring nine members of the team that won the six nations was nowhere in the script.
If the previous week’s game against Wasps had been a masterclass in Northern grit, of defiance in the face of adversity, this game was was an exhibition of ebullient extravagance. The sight of Faf, like some sort of demented blond comet, streaking through the Scarlets’ backline, harrying, hurrying and forcing errors, or of Akker, bouncing off defenders like a pinball on his way over the try line, were enough to get any Sale supporter bouncing on the edge of their sofa.
Jean-Luc swatting opponents aside— the whole team, let’s face it, showing a desire, a coherence and a determination that had been threatening to appear for some time but had somehow remained bottled up until this perfect storm appeared to blow Scarlets away.
Funnily enough, I just watched a video of an interview Axe did with Jim Hamilton back in January, shortly after he took over at Sale. In it, he talks about how he had sat down with the players and described what he wanted and how it would take some time to come to fruition. He mentioned six to eight weeks, and here we are, a bit over eight weeks later…
I sat down to watch this game with no real hope for victory. It wasn’t until about ten minutes into the second half that I started to convince myself that they might just have this game in the bag. But then, that’s what being a Sale supporter is all about – years of being conditioned to suppress belief, knowing that they are more than capable of finding new, exciting ways of buggering up a winning position. But maybe that’s about to change; there are signs of a new Sale emerging under the Colonel’s leadership. A Sale that we can watch without that frisson of worry at the back of our minds. Maybe we’ll get to understand how Saracens and Exeter fans feel. Maybe my demon is going to have to find a new home.
But not yet, I fear: ‘one summer…’ and all that. But certainly the signs are there that Axe is having a major impact on the squad. Not just in the way they all now mention ‘brotherhood’ in interviews, but in a palpable sense of urgency, of renewed vigour, a joie du jue, you might say.
How much of that was down to the return of a Curry – Tom, in this case, but Ben would do just as well – is debatable, but he was certainly one at least five contenders for player of the match and was an annoying presence at the breakdown, constantly in Scarlets faces and forcing them to hurry up and make mistakes.
Tom has certainly come on in leaps and bounds in his time with England and we can just hope that twin telepathy imparts some of that improvement to Ben, too (because he surely isn’t going to get it from Eddie Jones).
Speaking of twins, Jean-Luc and Dan seem to have got their heads on straight in the last couple of weeks. Now they’re much more about controlled, focussed aggression and less about randomised walloping. It looks as if Axe’s attempts to control the discipline are starting to take effect, with nothing that I can remember from the Sale side even warranting a second look. Unlike…
The only thing to mar what was a good, hard but respectful game was a truly cheap shot by Jake Ball on Faf. I normally try to see the best in these sorts of incidents, knowing that it can be difficult to pull out sometimes and that – usually – players are not trying to deliberately injure others. But that— that looked to me like a deliberate attempt to cause harm. The shoulder to the head, Faf’s position, making him vulnerable to potentially serious knee damage, that was malicious on the face of it. I believe Ball is off to Australia at the end of the season. Good, he’s not welcome in the North-West.
The player of note this week, for me, was AJ. A try and 11 kicks from 11 – including a monster from six inches in from the left touchline – to rack up a record 32 points in the game. Not only that, his tackling belies his size, he has an ability to wiggle through gaps and his show-and-go for Josh’s try was sublime, as was the pass out to Marland for his try.
Shout-outs, too, to Bevan Rodd, who continues to impress; Josh and Cobus, doing sterling work in the donkey row; Rohan, who looks even better when he’s not being the sole battering ram in the side; Raffi, who is showing a maturity beyond his years; and to the whole 23, for believing in themselves.
I was sceptical back then when all the calls for Alex to be appointed were being shouted across social media: 15 years away from Sale, never done the job – it seemed at the time a risky proposition. I was also concerned that players who had joined off the back of Dimes’s vision for the future of the club might not be as enthusiastic with a new guy in charge. I’m happy to say that the gamble has paid off. If anything, Axe has taken Dimes’s vision and expanded it. It seems that, not only have the players bought in even more enthusiastically to Axe’s approach, he has bought in to them and given them new belief in themselves. This is what Sale needed: the talent was there, it was the mental side that needed sorting. A bit of headology, as Granny Weatherwax* might put it.
The last time we played a European Cup match was under the ancien régime, and we scraped through to the last 16 because of COVID disruption. I wouldn’t argue with anyone who said that we didn’t really deserve that chance – two defeats, one point. Now, under new management, we thoroughly deserve that quarter-final place and another match-up with Stade Rochellaise. Oh, how I wish we could be there.
*If you don’t know who Granny Weatherwax is, then we can’t be friends.