Well, that was less comfortable than maybe it should have been but less bum-clenchingly tense than it could have been.
That’s not to diminish Leicester’s efforts, but Sale – again! – made things difficult for themselves in the second half with two more yellow cards, overlapping again, so spending ten minutes down to 13 men. That they survived that period conceding only the penalty try that came from Luke Jame’s card is commendable and a sign of the spirit that currently infuses the squad, but that huge effort should not have been necessary.
On the subject of Luke’s card, I’ve watched the match back and the referee only ever asked about deliberately into touch, he didn’t even mention a knock-on. I know the commentators – those founts of all knowledge and experts in the laws of the game – kept banging on about “if it goes backwards, he’s ok”, but they were, as ever, talking out of their fundamental orifices. Foley asked whether Luke had deliberately knocked the ball into touch. He and the TMO were of the opinion (rightly) that he never had a realistic chance of gathering the ball and that he prevented a probable try-scoring opportunity. Luke might have been better off letting the Leicester player catch it and trying to tackle him into touch. If he failed, at least the conversion would have been difficult.
Are Sale victims of their reputation, or are they just simply incapable of defending the try line legally? Is it really so hard to stay onside? After all, there’s bloody great white line to give you a hint.
Personally, I’m not happy at Sale’s record of having the most yellows in the Premiership. This a blight on the team, not the scars of northern oppression, and they need to address the issue quickly. I know Axe says they’ve been trying, but they need to stop trying and start succeeding. We don’t have the excuse of unfamiliarity with the new interpretations to fall back on any more.
Also of slight concern is a continued inability to turn dominance into an overwhelming lead. Sale were utterly dominant for about 25–30 minutes, but only came away with a single try from it. Partly that was down to kicking three penalties, rather than going for bigger rewards, and partly that we didn’t really look like breaking through that often – in the whole first half, we got into the Tigers’ 22 often enough, but only twice that I remember were we closer than five metres to their line.
I know that keeping the scoreboard ticking is a thing and at least we did that, but it would have been nice to keep it ticking at seven points a go, rather than three. I think we were sufficiently in charge to make that a risk worth taking at least once or twice. Maybe the way the 5-metre line out attack in the second minute fizzled out affected subsequent thinking.
Only Newcastle have fewer try bonus points than Sale, with Worcester and Leicester on the same number (three). We’ve scored three tries five times this season. Things would be much more comfortable at the sharp end of the season if we could have converted some of those into bonus points. We could even be second now.
But enough of the requisite negativity. There was much in this game to applaud, so let’s do that.
I mean, yes, it is disappointing that we couldn’t turn an extended period of dominance into ‘out-of-sight-by-half-time’, but that stems from massively increased expectations over the last couple of months. The fact was, we were by far the better team for the first half and most of the second and this is not the only game where we’ve had these extended dominant periods. Converting that dominance into ruthless points scoring will come, but impatience is a feature of any supporter of any team.
Some of the attacking moves in that first period were quite delicious. AJ’s little kick through on ten minutes could so easily have resulted in a try. That it didn’t was one of those things that hinge on small differences – a slightly different direction on the offload from Jean-Luc and it’s into Sam James’s hands, not Zack Henry’s.
Seeing Marland Yarde steam through the Tiger’s defence as if it wasn’t there in the lead-up to the first try was a joy to behold. Tom Curry’s carry just prior wasn’t bad, either. And then good, fast linking play ending in a sublime pass out to Horse, who wasn’t going to be denied.
86% of the territory after 20 minutes tells the story of the level of dominance. The second quarter consisted mostly of a midfield battle, with Tigers starting to get themselves back into the game, but with Sale being mostly unruffled by it, a couple of scares and a few mistakes notwithstanding. A penalty each and we went to half-time 16–3 up. A satisfying performance that deserved a better reward in terms of points on the board and tries in the bank.
Immediately after half time, Faf put in a lovely kick over the defence for AJ to collect. Again, you couldn’t help but feel that it was a chance that should have been put away. As it was, AJ kicked another penalty to put Sale three scores ahead.
That kick, by the way, put AJ into second place in all-time Premiership points scored for Sale, behind only Lord Charles Hodgson. Not bad for someone who’s too slow and can’t run a backline.
A rare mistake by AJ – out on the full from a ball taken back into the 22 (and the ref clearly shouted ‘taken in’) – gave Leicester the attacking platform that eventually led to Jean-Luc going to the bin, followed a couple of minutes later by Luke James.
Incidentally, as part of that sequence, we got the first scrum of the match after 47 minutes. It was inevitable, I suppose, that it ended (after a reset) with a free kick to Leicester without the ball even being put in. Then it was more pressure, another scrum, another series of penalties, off went Jean-Luc, off went Luke, penalty try given, Leicester in the ascendency.
Sale then faced at least seven minutes down to thirteen men (it turned to be more than ten minutes). They defended it on the principle that the best form of defence is attack. By the simple expedient of mostly keeping possession of the ball in Leicester’s half, they saw off a dangerous period relatively comfortably. I say ‘comfortably’, it was a pretty brutal ten minutes, but they handled it sensibly, using up time when they could, denying Leicester the ball and tackling like demons when Tigers did manage to put an attack together.
Sale’s response to going back up to fifteen was just as simple: go up two gears in intensity. Raffi came on for Faf, Harper and Ashman in the front row and now it was Leicester battening down the hatches in the face of unrelenting pressure from a fired-up Sale team.
It wasn’t long before Sale were camped on the Leicester line out to the left, and Raffi popped up a short pass for Marland to dive in for Sale’s second try.
Interestingly, with a bit over five minutes to go, Leicester mounted a serious attack on the Sale line, which Sale defended resolutely and without giving away penalty after penalty. So they can do it – why couldn’t they do it earlier, and possibly play with fifteen for the full eighty minutes (something they have only managed three times in the Premiership this season)?
And so it ended in the style it had been played: brutally. We had the worrying sight of Josh going off with an ankle injury, which left Sale down to fourteen for the last minute. Their response? To nearly score again; if only Horse could have held on to a short pass, he was in.
From the scrum, with ten seconds left, Leicester mounted another attack, but Sale got the ball back and booted it downfield for Byron to chase. Tigers recovered, but an overcooked kick to the wing brought proceedings to a halt and we all started breathing again.
That was a brutal, exciting game to watch and it’s going to need four more performances of at least that intensity over the last four rounds.
Players of note.
Marland was everywhere; in defence, in attack. If a kick went up, the defender catching it was as likely as not to have Marland in his face for his troubles. If someone made a break, it was probably Marland chasing him down and pulling him to ground. My man of the match.
AJ was official man of the match and was instrumental in so much that was good about Sale’s attack, as well as putting himself about in defence, too.
Faf was close to his old, mercurial self. Charging at players twice his size and expecting to come off best. Not trying too hard off the ruck, letting the backline flow – a much better use of his talent.
In the forwards, The du Preez twins (yellow card aside) had their usual powerful games. They seem to have learned to temper some of their wilder instincts and now choose the appropriate time to offload, rather than go for it dangerous situations. Tom Curry showed why he’s going to South Africa with Lions.
Bath away next week and then it’s the run-in of nightmares. Bristol, Harlequins and Exeter. Two of those four games have got to be revenge wins (I hope). Doing the double on Bristol would be so satisfying and Exeter? We can dream, I suppose…