One year, two months and twenty-two days. Sixty-four weeks. Four hundred and forty-eight days. It’s been a long time, but I’m finally watching a game of rugby from the south stand of the AJ Bell.
It’s been an odd few days leading up to this – equal measures of excitement, anticipation and nervousness. Nervousness, partly from this being an immense game and partly from the global situation. For the last year we’ve been living under a shifting set of rules that have little precedent in our lives up to that point, and these rules are Terribly Important©. This leads to a mental disconnect, where you’re always worried that you are somehow breaking one of these rules accidentally, by force of habit.
So here we are, back again, but we can’t just gaily do it the way we’ve always done it – there are rules. Add that fear of doing something wrong to the knowledge that this game is the biggest game of the season so far (until next week) and your butterflies have got butterflies.
(By the way, this is not a dig at the club or any aspect of its handling of the return of crowds. It’s simply an observation on the strange times in which we live. As it happens, the whole process was smooth and painless and soon enough, there I was back inside, on the south stand terrace — not in my accustomed spot, admittedly, but the important word here is inside.)
And then some old, familiar faces turned up and the months melted away and, for a while, all was right with the world. Up to this point, I had thought I understood how much the simple act of standing on a lump of concrete at the edge of a big field, ‘singing’ my stupid head off in the company of good friends meant to me.
I was wrong.
It is so, so much more important than I would have believed. I find myself getting emotional just writing this and remembering that feeling as we all gathered again waiting for the off.
Which seems a good point to pause a moment and reflect. On the one hand, yes, the months melted away but, in a very real sense, we could not ignore the brutal reality of the year just past. As you’re reading this, please just stop for while and raise a glass of Malbec or whatever is your tipple to those friends that we won’t be meeting up with again; those empty seats and gaps on the terrace where there used to be a cheery wave, a ‘hiya’ from afar or a deep half-time conversation that will never happen again.
To absent friends…
As for the game itself, if I hadn’t watched the replay, I doubt that I could have put together a coherent report beyond “Oof; ouch; oh, no; yes, yes, yes, yes, YESSSSSSSS!” because that’s an approximation of the emotions we all went through as the game progressed.
My overriding impression at the time was that I had almost forgotten the gut-wrenching brutality of the hits that only comes over faintly when watching on the TV, but which becomes all too real when they happen right in front of you.
The first forty minutes must go down as the most entertaining nil-nil half I’ve ever seen. I’d also say it was more entertaining than several complete games that did have scoring.
And this is where I take issue with those who would equate “entertaining” with “fast, furious, end-to-end”. There is room for all sorts of play in most team sports and just because some people have such a short attention span that they get fractious unless fed a constant diet of easy-to-digest simplistic pablum doesn’t mean that there aren’t a significant number of us who enjoy more nuanced fare. [Looks back to the beginning of that sentence; notes how far away it is; shrugs.]
There may not have been any points in that first half, but there was plenty to relish for that forty minutes. If I had to sum it up in one word, it would be ‘brutal defence’.
Bristol spent almost the entire half in Sale territory, with several concerted attacks on the line but, in each case, Sale’s defence not only held firm, it pushed the Bristol attack back and turned it over.
Oh, there were mistakes; a lingering cause for concern, despite the recent string of wins, is how often Sale make silly unforced errors – dropped balls, misplaced passes and so on. I think, if we fixed those, then we’d have had a lot more possession in that first half. For reference, Sale had 24% of the first half possession and made 108 tackles to Bristol’s 25.
The thing that nullified those stats was simply the speed of Sale’s defence. Bristol are used to being able to put the ball through hands quickly, cut different lines, exploit gaps and capitalise on the speed of their backs. When you’ve got someone up in your face as you’re trying to do the first of those things, the rest fall by the wayside. Simply put, Sale stopped Bristol from playing the game that they rely on, and they had no answer. Note that both of Bristol’s tries came from a rare mistake in defence – a mistake which they punished ruthlessly, it has to be said, which puts the immensity of the rest of the defensive stint into some perspective.
The second half started badly as one of the aforementioned mistakes got its desserts as Earl profited from strong running by Radradra and Piutau. Sheedy missed the conversion, but here we were, five-nil down in what was looking like it would be a low-scoring duel.
You wouldn’t be a Sale fan if, at this point, there wasn’t a little frisson of ‘oh, no’ settling in your gut. It’s a measure of how far this team’s come, though, that that little nagging worry is getting weaker and weaker by the match. My little demon has permanent residence after so long following Sale, but he’s getting older and sleeps more than he used to.
That score seemed to galvanise Sale and they started pushing Bristol hard. Raffi Quirke had come on for Faf, so we had replaced guile and unpredictability with speed and unpredictability at scrum half. A typical mazy run following some good build-up play came to an abrupt end when Radradra collared him round the neck and saw yellow for his trouble.
I’m not going to go into the other incident; I listened to the ref as he went through the process and made his decision on the facts as he saw them. Disagree with his interpretation of what he saw if you will, but he’s the ref, that’s what he saw, and his final decision was consistent with that interpretation.
The card completed the turning of the tide in Sale’s favour as, within a couple of minutes, Dan duPreez bundled over the line for the try that brought parity to the scores (we won’t mention the conversion attempt…)
A couple of minutes after that and a lovely cross-field kick from AJ found Byron almost on his own out on the wing. A quick run forward, a pass inside to give Rob duPreez his first touch of the ball and we’re now 12–5 up.
With ten minutes to go, Curtis Langdon all but sealed matters with a third try for a 19–5 lead. A couple of minutes later, I was just contemplating the ‘points difference greater than minutes times two’ equation when Bristol exploited another defensive error for Ioan Lloyd to go over in the corner. A good conversion by Sheedy put Bristol back in bonus point territory and put the safety equation back by a few minutes. A penalty from AJ shortly after made the gap ten points and left Bristol with just the losing bonus point to fight for. A tense couple of minutes watching Sale stuff it up the jumper (I’ve seen them bugger that up before…) and it was all over: seventh win in a row, semi-final qualification confirmed, life is good.
Once again, I’m reluctant to single out players for special mention. Jean-Luc got the man of the match award and he was immense throughout. He seems to have sorted out the crazy tendency that marred his performances in the past, so now we have the aggression and ball-carrying but without that looming threat of a brain-dead unneeded clear-out and a ten-minute rest.
But, really, this was that cliché of a 23-man performance. Everyone played their part to the full and it is so refreshing to watch a Sale team where bringing on the substitutes does not cause any dip in intensity or quality. I called it The Axe Factor, and I’m going to continue calling it that, because I like the pun even if no-one else does.
I’ve seen suggestions that Sale should try to finish fourth since away to Bristol is supposedly an easier prospect than away to Exeter. Given that Bristol could still finish second or that we could finish top and with due apologies to those who’ve proposed this view: bollocks to that. The idea of deliberately losing games for any reason whatsoever is just anathema. I want this seven-game winning run to be eleven games by the end of the season, so no. Just no. No way. We go all out against Quins, we give everything against Exeter, then give everything against Exeter again the week after, whether home or away. Do that and we will have deserved that run-out on the Twickenham turf.
Exeter are now five points ahead with two games to play. I’m going to assume they’ll get another five next week, which means we have to get a bonus-point win against Harlequins. Then, a five-point win at Sandy Park (with no points for Exeter) would give Sale second place on games won. Not that long ago, I’d have been snorting in derision at anyone who suggested that as a serious proposition, but not now; not now that we’ve got the Axe Factor.
2 thoughts on “View from the south stand: Sale 22 Bristol 12”
A cracking account of Friday’s extraordinary game TOGD. And it seems we could well have found an antidote to the Sale Sharks Syndrome “We can still blow this” with your “Axe Factor” to one of “We can do this” and yes no slacking, we need to keep up the momentum. Thanks for the Monday morningness pick-me-up TOGD. Mike Flitcroft.
AOGD, not TOGD. Well a bit of Monday morningness residue remained me-thinks.
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