It did occur to me to just copy/paste last week’s report and then I’d have time to fix a coffee and kick back for a while. But then I thought I ought to at least change a couple of words to reflect some important differences.
Let’s get the grumbles out of the way, first, shall we?
Three yellow cards with a seven-minute overlap between two of them. If you’re going to pull somebody out of a maul, or even collapse one, don’t be so obvious about it, eh? And what is the point of tripping someone forty metres out when you’ve got defensive cover, anyway? So much for the cards these days being for mainly technical offences – these were just bone-headed.
So, once again the Sale Sharks rugby league franchise held the line, denying Bath a single point during any of the sin-bin periods (actually, they didn’t score for the last 26 minutes or so; even better).
Sale had most of the possession and territory for the first twenty minutes or so, despite Bath coming out of it two tries to one ahead. Both Bath tries were a bit opportunistic, the first coming from a counter following a Sale error, the second from a relatively unthreatening position made threatening by a missed tackle (*cough*Akker*cough*).
Between those two, Sale scored a try of their own after some neat build-up work in midfield, a break down the right and a neat floated pass out to Burj, who wasn’t going to miss from about six metres out. AJ kicked the conversion but missed a long penalty a few minutes later. This, unfortunately, was a sign of things to come, with him having an uncharacteristically bad day with the boot.
For that first twenty minutes, I thought Sale were looking quite composed; there was fluency in the backs moves, Jean-Luc was making metres seemingly every time he carried, Tom was jackalling like a particularly hungry jackal and the team had – two blips apart – turned off Bath’s taps and were looking as if it was just a matter of time before they pulled level and then ahead.
But then the errors started creeping in, Bath began to get some parity and things were looking a bit less secure. The penalty count started to rack up again, alongside the unforced error count. It wasn’t looking good for a card-free game…
Akker botched a simple fall over the line from a dominant maul on the half-hour but, five minutes later, Byron touched down out on the right for Sale’s second try. AJ missed the conversion which, to be fair, was the most difficult for a right-footed kicker. Unusual, but no biggy.
Then – how often does this happen? – a silly penalty a couple of minutes later gave Priestland an easy kick to move Bath five points ahead.
But, on the stroke of half-time, a gorgeous out-of-the-back-of-the-hand pop from Wiese gave Hammer a simple run-in, which he did his best to bugger up by placing the ball and nearly dropping it, rather than just falling over with it clutched to his chest in a death grip.
After a forensic examination of every aspect of the score by ref and TMO, they grudgingly allowed it to stand. 17-all with the simple conversion to come…
AJ must have been wearing his boots on the wrong feet. That’s the only explanation for missing a conversion from less than ten metres to the left of the posts. The penalty and second conversion were understandable, this one was AJ’s bread-and-butter kick. Still, 17-all at half time; let’s see what the Axe can say to them in the interval to start piling on the pressure and get that needed win.
The message seemed to be ‘tackling optional, give away penalties’. My notes for the opening minutes of the second half say: ‘getting tense now’ and ‘Bath making a few too many breaks’, along with the one that I’ve now made a stamp for, since it’s on just about every page: ‘PENALTIES!’.
Add in the unforced errors and we were wondering if the fourth try would ever come. I’ll be honest: around now, I was thinking in terms of coming away with two bonus points, so intent did we seem on handing the initiative back to Bath. Case in point: 53 minutes in, a good build-up looking hopeful for that bonus point try and… Byron gets isolated and the whole thing fizzles out. To add insult to injury, Bath were awarded a penalty a couple of minutes later to go 20–17 ahead.
The normal state of things, when there’s an attacking maul barrelling towards the line, is that a desperate defender will fall over, bring the maul down and get himself a ten-minute rest. Rarer is the situation where one of the attacking players will illegally prevent a defender from defending. But never let be said that Sale Sharks are unwilling to explore novel and inventive ways of adding to their yellow card collection. So, when Cobus essentially bollocksed up an almost certain try by hoicking a defender out of the maul like a stage director giving the shepherd’s crook to a particularly bad comic in a working men’s club, it seemed almost inevitable that this was one infringement the referee was not going to miss. My first thought was to open a book on how long until the next card, because we don’t seem to like leaving players to get lonely in the bin.
It was about three minutes.
This time they went for the more traditional ‘defender collapsing the maul’ card, presumably downgrading the level of difficulty in order to get more points for elegance of execution.
Thirteen men, no scrum-half, no blind side flanker, it’s déjà vu all over again (and again).
Someone on a Leicester Tigers’ forum said “the way to beat Sale is to not let them go down to thirteen men”. Face it, that’s funny. It’s also annoying because I don’t want Sale to be that team that lives on the wrong side of the edge; that team that’s getting a reputation for dirty play. I just want us to keep fifteen men on the pitch and to not have to write about sterling defensive efforts against the odds – odds that we stacked against ourselves.
And let’s not go blaming referees, that’s lazy talk. I accept that the referees may be looking at us a bit more closely, maybe they’re primed to spot transgressions (although standing in front of the ref with a neon sign saying ‘I’m doing something illegal’ doesn’t need much priming), but, if so, the reason they are so hot is because we’ve earned that reputation. There hasn’t been a smear campaign – ‘watch those Sale guys, they’re always offside’ – we started the avalanche and it’s become self-perpetuating. It’s going to take a lot of work to lose the tarnish: I don’t expect it to improve before next season when maybe we’ll start with a clean slate.
Anyway, we got through it again without conceding any points and promptly proceeded to waste another promising attack. By now, there were five minutes left and we hadn’t troubled the scorers for thirty-five minutes.
At this point, another promising attack had just fizzled out, but we were still in a good position. Then, my heart sank as I heard the TMO call the referee’s attention to ‘foul play by a Sale player’. And this is what I mean by us having a reputation, because the foul play was by a Bath player, not Sale. I do not believe that Ridley, or any official is biased against us, or even biased against ‘the North’, but I do feel that we have done ourselves no favours— no, sod it, Jonno has done us no favours by rubbing refs up the wrong away and being one of the prime culprits for giving away penalties and cards earlier in the season and starting the process of getting our ‘reputation’.
Anyway, they corrected the mistake, binned the Bath player and AJ kicked the penalty into the corner. We decided to let the resulting maul do its job this time and Curtis Langdon went over – finally! – for the bonus point try, AJ kicked the conversion and we were four points up with a couple of minutes to play.
But they can’t let us, the long-suffering supporters, enjoy a couple of minutes of ‘stuff it up the jumper’ rugby to see the game out, can they? Give the initiative back to Bath, get Byron binned, give a penalty from the resulting maul, start to lose ground to the next one…
… and then, miraculously, steal the ball on the line and boot it into the Avon.
I started with the grumbles, so let’s end with the plaudits.
Ben Curry came back as if he’d never been away. The sight of double Curry burrowing into a ruck like a pair of terriers after a rabbit was one to raise the spirits at any time.
Cobus – brain fart aside – had a great game; carried well, gave a deft offload for Hammer’s try and generally got stuck in the way you expect a wing forward to. He may well be better in the back row than among the donkeys.
Akker buggered up a clear try-scoring opportunity, but otherwise made a nuisance of himself in the loose and hit his man at line-out time (not that difficult, given who he was aiming at…). I think the days of Akker’s darts being a liability are well and truly over now.
Burj had probably his best game so far. Not only scoring a try, but carrying well and being a useful line out target. He’s probably too tall to be much use on the floor, but up in the air… he’s the man.
In the backs, Byron – brain fart aside – and Marland were everywhere again, Marland in particular once again getting in the kick receiver’s face, joining rucks, turning wing forward when needed. Sam Hill had probably his best game, with some decent carries and a good defensive shift. AJ had an off day from the tee but is cementing his position as first-choice and seems to finally be forming a good double act with Faf. Sam James still seems a little out of sorts, more anonymous than we expect from someone who, not so long ago, was a nailed-on starter. Now, I’d be tempted to start Manu at 12 and Hill at 13, assuming Manu’s fit for Bristol. See if Hill can find some holes in Manu’s wake. Or maybe Manu (or Rohan) is what Sam J needs to rediscover some form.
I had been hoping for this win, but ready for disappointment, so to get a bonus point out of it was extra special, even if the up, downs and harum-scarum of the game meant that I didn’t really absorb what had happened until a bit later.
A week off, now, and then the run-in from hell against the other three top four teams, starting with Bristol. Wouldn’t it be great to be the only team to do the double over them this season? And even more satisfying to watch it live and in person. The next two reports will not be ‘from the armchair’ but from the south stand, and so will probably contain even more than the usual errors, misrememberings and blue-tinted opinion. Don’t care. Fourteen sodding months. Can. Not. Wait.
See you there, if you’ve managed to get a ticket. If you haven’t, I sympathise. Not for too long, though, I’m too pumped up…