I call them ‘meringue games’: a big win, looks good, but somewhat unsatisfying. When the opposition isn’t up for it, or has essentially surrendered before the start, it takes the gloss off of what should be a celebration.
Don’t get me wrong – I loved it and there was much good play to enjoy and savour. It was also so encouraging that we’re now at a place where we can make nine changes and still put in a performance like that. It just doesn’t have that deep, visceral satisfaction that beating Bristol last week had.
This was another game with an air of revenge about it, given that Quins had handed Sale their biggest defeat this season – the only game that we haven’t taken at least one league point from and the only time we’ve been out of the top four. To counter that with the biggest win of the season is particularly satisfying, even if it would have been nicer to do it against their best team.
Things didn’t start ideally, with an early line-out going wrong and Sale being taken by surprise as Greene broke away and fed Landajo for a Quins try after just three minutes. There may have been a bit of shenanigans in the build-up with Marland seemingly held back, but it wasn’t given and it’s possible that the score may just have kicked Sale out of any latent complacency they may have felt in the wake of the Quins selection.
Five minutes later, the Sale scrum was applying serious pressure on the Quins forwards and it wasn’t long before Akker was barrelling over the line for Sale’s first score and parity.
For the next sixty minutes or so, Harlequins barely had a sniff of Sale’s line, although they tried hard, took a number of quick line-outs and generally looked to play their accustomed open game.
The pleasing thing was that Sale more or less matched that desire for open play but managed to combine it with their more usual power game as well. They were displaying the best of both worlds, bullying one minute, offloading and shifting the ball around the next.
Twenty minutes in, Faf chased a lost cause five metres out from the Quins line, won it and set up a move that saw the ball move swiftly left for ’Ol Slowpoke to score the second out wide. Say what you want about Marland’s supposed lack of pace, there aren’t many can exploit a narrow gap by the touchline the way he can. AJ kicked a good conversion, and we all felt that this was going to be the game that Sale started to show their true potential.
Just after the half hour, Byron got on the end of another Sale attack for try number three. Oddly, AJ missed the relatively simple conversion but we were now twelve points ahead and looking good for many more.
Seven of those came just before half-time as Cam Neild barged, rolled and reached out to claim the bonus point try. Half time came, Sale were 26–7 up and looking likely to put on a cricket score.
As is so often the case, though, the second half started out much flatter than the first. Five minutes in and Axe changed the entire front row — and isn’t a delight to be a Sale fan watching a substitute front row that could easily be the starters come on? — and brought on a recovered Rohan as some compensation for not have Manu to cheer again.
Forty-nine minutes and Faf had a brain fart that saw him taking a ten minute rest following a shoulder charge on someone twice his size (that’s most players, yes).
But, that aside, for the first fifteen minutes of the second half, the excitement was on a low simmer rather than a rolling boil. Then Rohan collected a chip forward from Rob du Preez and bullied his way past a couple of tacklers to score under the posts. Not a bad return for his time out.
Ten minutes after that, Bev Rodd stretched out a long arm [? shurely shome mishtake – Ed] for try number six. Forty points to seven ahead with fifteen minutes to go; should be a formality.
A bit of sloppy defending allowed Quins to pull five points back with a nice break through the middle, but Sale’s seventh, courtesy of Jean-Luc, finally sealed the deal. 45–12, a 33-point margin of victory and a guarantee of third place at least. Job done and done well.
So, did we learn anything from that?
- Still making too many unforced errors and basic handling mistakes (Quins had 9 scrums, Sale had 1). On the positive side, only 4 penalties given away in the whole game. So how come we still manage to have someone sent to the bin? It’s getting embarrassing. Not just embarrassing, Exeter will probably punish us if go down a player against them. OK, the first half against Northampton suggests that that threat may not be as great as feared but it’s probably still much, much safer to try to keep fifteen men on the pitch.
- There is no ‘first 23’ any more. Nine changes from the previous week, and you wouldn’t have noticed. OK, the opposition wasn’t as dangerous, but nobody was being carried through the game, everyone put in a shift and all contributed to a fairly comprehensive victory.
- Cam Neild got man of the match, but there were several contenders. Jean-Luc carried and bullied well again; Akker was his usual annoying presence in the loose (although the line-out let him down for once); Ben was in the rucks getting turnovers and putting in a shift at scrum half.
- Hammers was, once again, absolutely solid under the high ball. He may not have shown the slipperiness that caused Dimes to nickname him ‘spaghetti’, but if you want someone you can trust to clean up at the back, he’s your man.
At least the equation for the next game is simple: win with a bonus point and deny Exeter anything.
Can we put four tries past Exeter at their place? Absolutely. I think this team, more than any other in the last sixteen years, can do that. Can we stop Exeter getting four of their own and keep them more than seven points adrift? I’m less sure on that count.
I suspect that we’ll end up travelling down to Sandy Park for the next two weekends. Whether we also travel to Twickenham the weekend after depends on the lessons we learn this coming weekend.
Finally, and apropos of absolutely nothing, I’m going to take this opportunity to give a shout out to the Devils Bean Coffee Co, owned by Sale fan Rod Nisbet. If you’re a coffee-lover, go grab a bag of their Shark Bait coffee – it’s damn good stuff and 15% of the proceeds go towards the Sale Sharks Community Trust.
This endorsement is in no way connected to the bag of coffee beans that mysteriously made its way into my possession last Friday. 😎