Posted in match reports

View from the armchair: Sale 25 Gloucester 22

Call it The Axe Factor: there has been a noticeable change in the team over the last three months. It’s not something that’s easy to describe, either; it’s about demeanour, attitude – intangibles that you can’t quite point to and say “that”, but it’s there nonetheless.

Let’s face it, last season – no, sod it, at the start of this season – we’d have lost that game, and by some margin. Oh, it would probably have played out similarly up to the hour mark. But then, when Gloucester scored to draw level, heads would have dropped, panic would have set in and the game would have gone.

This time, though, heads stayed high, they pressed, earned a penalty to go ahead and didn’t relinquish that lead (sort of…) for the final ten minutes or so of the game – in fact, they were pushing for the bonus point try for the last few minutes.

At this point, I suggest that we all raise our glasses in a toast to Ed Slater, whose unwise hand in a ruck chalked off what would have been Gloucester’s winning try and saved JP du Preez’s bacon (and blushes) into the bargain.

Things had started reasonably well, with early pressure going unrewarded because of silly penalties (surprise!), but then Rob du Preez made a smart break for a huge gain before feeding to Faf, who sauntered in for a simple try.

Ten minutes later, a – well, iffy doesn’t really do it justice – kick by Luke bounced around awkwardly before Gloucester set up a foot race for the line involving Jonny May – and there’s usually only one winner there.

Twenty minutes in, and Arron Reed gave us a glimpse of what he’s capable of by skipping past several despairing tackles to score a brilliant solo try (following a delicious inside pass from Sam James). I seriously thought it was going to be wiped off for a forward pass earlier in the move, but the ref deemed it to be ‘flat’. No idea how; that looked dodgy to me live and more obvious on the replays. However, flat it was, and I’m not going to complain. (And if you think I’m being inconsistent after complaining about it last week… hello: biased.)

And then it happened. No complaints, it was always going to be red, I just hope Rob doesn’t dwell on it. It was clumsy, sure, but there was no malice. It’s the sort of incident that I think the orange card was being mooted for (and which it appears is going to be the standard for a red). On that, I quite liked the idea of the orange (or amber or whatever) card. For some offences – usually technical – I think it’s fair enough that the player involved basically gets a red card, but that the team gets the equivalent of two yellows. But there are some offences – usually thuggish – where the punishment has to be to the player and the team. On that basis, we’d have played most of the second half with fifteen players.

Things then got a bit silly, with what might charitably be called ‘unstructured’ rugby as both teams started throwing the ball around, intercepting, back-and-forth… general mayhem, really: my notes at this point just say “harum-scarum stuff”.

We got to half-time with just a Gloucester penalty to move the score on to 12–8.

AJ cancelled that shortly after half-time and, shortly after, Faf attempted a long, 50-metre shot that, let’s face it, was nowhere near. I’m not sure why they even bothered – a line-out drive had not been compromised by the red card and would have eaten up a lot more time from the clock.

Three minutes later, though, AJ went off on a bit of wander round the back of the Sale attack before feeding the ball to Marland, who squirmed his way over to give Sale a 14-point lead with just over a quarter of the game to go.

As we all know, the equation is: at least twice as many points as minutes left, so things were still tense, as Sale must start tiring and surely Gloucester would remember the right tactics to use against 14 men.

And so our fears were realised as, within ten minutes of Marland’s try, Gloucester had scored two tries of their own to bring the scores level, with eighteen minutes still to go.

Tell me your heart hadn’t sunk at that point and you weren’t contemplating a blown chance and possible loss of third place and I won’t believe you. Oh, there was always hope and clinging to the fact that the team have looked a lot more resilient lately but, in your heart-of-hearts, tjhe prognosis wasn’t good.

Ten minutes to go and AJ kicked the penalty to give the lead back to Sale and signal the start of squeaky bum time in earnest. Rectal fortitude was severely tested a few minutes later as it seemed that Tom Curry had defused a dangerous Gloucester attack with a brilliant turnover, only for JP to throw a loose pass, which Gloucester recovered and seemed to score from. We then had a protracted conversation between the referee and the TMO, during which the ref appeared not to hear the TMO mention a possible hand in the ruck, fixating on the earlier call of a possible knock-on.

As Sale hearts sank through the sofa, the TMO finally got his point across, the ref agreed and, to the sound of breath being released across the north-west, Sale cleared their lines from the resulting penalty. From there, they managed to retain control of the ball for the remaining time, coming within a gnat’s of the bonus-point try, before AJ pragmatically booted the ball out with time up, and we all remembered to breathe again.

Now, let’s be realistic about this. Despite what I said at the start, Sale could so easily have lost this game. Gloucester’s inability, like Wasps a few weeks before, to take advantage of numerical superiority helped tremendously, as did Rees-Zammit’s butchering of several chances early on.

But that sort of thing is out of the team’s control: their attitude and willingness and ability to exploit the other team’s mistakes – that’s the important bit, and that’s what is so much more noticeable recently.

Performances of note: Marland had a good game, not only scoring his try but managing to get in the face of the kick receiver pretty much every time (not bad for someone with ‘no pace’, eh?).

Akker had a decent game, too. One iffy lineout, but he carried resonably well, if not quite to his usual standard, and managed at least one turnover that I saw.

Arron Reed could probably count himself unlucky to be the one sacrificed to bring AJ on, but his contribution won’t, I’m sure, have gone unnoticed where it counts.

Player of the match for me, though, has be Tom Curry. Not only being a major nuisance at the ruck, including the crucial turnover at the death, but also the way he encouraged, cajoled and generally kept everyone going. Lions captain in four years, that lad. We need to keep him and Ben for as long as we possibly can.

Six games left, three of them against the other top four teams. We need to carry this new spirit on at Worcester and at home against Leicester. It would be nice to be able to go to Exeter for the last regular knowing that we can’t drop out of the top four. They can do it, and the next few weeks are going to really test that Axe factor and determine whether it’s a lasting effect or a flash in the pan. (I’m betting on lasting effect…)



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