It’s the difference between the hardened, been-there-done-that, old lags and the up-and-coming challengers. Under the cosh, suffer a crippling blow, but still pull something out of the bag.
I remarked at half time that I felt that, even if they went on to lose, I would still be happy with the performance because the first half was so good. And I stick by that: that was the performance of a team confident in itself. It doesn’t stop me being massively disappointed that we couldn’t hold on, though.
Some perspective: before the game, I felt we had a chance of winning, but no better than evens. Doing enough to clinch the home semi-final was, I felt, a step too far; no better than a 20% chance, if that. So, a 20–19 scoreline (and doing them three tries to two) seems a vindication of my earlier assessment. In that respect and, given an uptick in discipline over the last couple of games, I’m reasonably content with how the end of season has panned out.
Oh, but it was so agonisingly close. You know me, by now: I’m not going to harp on refereeing decisions as a way of feeling better about the result. I know what confirmation bias is and I know that I’m as subject to it as anyone else. I am also not in the business of pretending that I know what a referee ‘wants’ the outcome of a decision process to be, so let’s just park the fact of the various cards and move on, eh? I tend to agree with those who thought Ewers should have got the red and Skinner the yellow, but the referee disagreed and he is the sole arbiter of fact.
For the record, I thought Dickson had a decent game. If I have a problem with him, it’s that I feel he doesn’t communicate well with the players, certainly not to the level of Barnes or Pearce (or Doyle). That leads to him making more – shall we say? – pedantic decisions, where a bit more chat might keep things flowing. There’s no obvious rapport, is what I’m saying.
The game had a mixed opening for Sale: a try early on, but two injuries – to Akker and to Cam – in the first ten minutes was something of a blow and, I suspect, at least partially responsible for the final twenty minutes or so. Even though Exeter also had to make an early substitution – after half an hour – there must surely have been some advantage to them being able to bring on some fresh guys to go against a pair of subs who’d already been out there for forty minutes in the baking heat. Had we been able to bring Curtis and Ben on at that stage, rather than so much earlier, I think we wouldn’t have so visibly flagged at the end, and may well have held on to the lead.
Thinking of that first try, it encapsulates, for me, some of the reasons why Sale can find it heavy going at times. I mean, it was a lovely move out right to Byron, who finished off with aplomb, and a good conversion from AJ. But it should have been scored thirty seconds before, on the left wing. A delicious kick over the defence from AJ (moment of the match for me), Sam James on to it at pace, cut inside, pass back outside to Akker steaming up behind…
…And it was a shade too high. Momentum lost, defence regroups, and we have to go across field to Byron for the score. It’s those moments of slight inaccuracy that cause a small pause, the flow is lost and momentum needs to be regained. Meanwhile, the defence have had time to adjust a bit better and what was a nailed-on score putters out again.
We got away with that first one but, later on, an offload too many, the intended receiver six inches too far forward, knocked on, promising attack over. The fourth try was in there somewhere, but perhaps the move leading to it fizzled out because of an over-delayed pass, or a pass too soon, or a little too far behind; anything that causes a tiny hiccup in the flow of the move. And that hiccup, like the proverbial flap of a butterfly’s wing, ends up having an increasing effect on subsequent phases until the opportunity is gone.
On such fine margins are matches won and lost.
Obviously, not all little fumbles result in a lost opportunity – see description above of the first try – but the more accurate you are, the better your chances of making the breakthrough and getting those important try bonus points.
So what went wrong in those final twenty-odd minutes? Quite simply, we became the victims of what we’ve done to others several times this season. The biter bit, so to speak. Call it ‘the red card effect’, when a team finds extra determination and grit following a blow like that. We’ve done it, Northampton did it for a while last week against Exeter. Perhaps if Exeter’s cards had been the other way around, then they, Like Northampton the week before may not have been able to sustain that added intensity for the extra twenty-five or so minutes. Also, Skinner’s card would have seen them down to thirteen for a while – we might have got the extra score.
Or, as I said before, if Akker and Cam hadn’t been injured early on, we’d have been better able to match their added energy from the substitutions.
If, if, if. We could play this game for ever, poring over every move, every fumble, every tap tackle and say ‘what if?’ What if that player had been six inches further back and better able to hold that offload? What if…?
But, in the end, what happened, happened. We can’t change it: the moving finger writes and, having writ, buggers off…
More perspective: we are exactly where we realistically expected to be before kick-off. The only thing to come out of this game that is a net negative over (realistic) expectations is the probable loss of Akker and AJ. And that’s a bloody huge negative, too, and one that may well have a significant impact on the course of next week’s game.
But for the rest, I’ll let the players and coaches worry about the reasons for the defeat and how they’re going to correct them. For me, if you told me we had to lose one of these two games, then this was the one to lose. Because only next week’s game matters. This one was just a game, next week is the business. Next week is a one-off, no special calculations, no required number of tries, no need to restrict the opposition. Just a simple equation: to the one that scores most points goes the glory.
I’m not concerned that this defeat will derail Sale’s current run of form. I suspect that the players and coaches will see this game as having been stolen rather than lost. If they are anything other than fired up to redress that wrong, then they’re not the team I’ve been watching for the last few months.
So it comes down to this: forget the previous twenty-two matches; they’re gone, done, over with. Only next week matters; don’t look further ahead, concentrate only on this one and on winning. If Exeter aren’t feeling mighty relieved after that game – and a bit anxious about the next one – then they are significantly more arrogant than I believe them to be. They’re a bit worried – of course they are – but they’ll believe they can win. We need to believe we can win, and I think this defeat does nothing to dent or lessen that belief.
And if the fates should conspire once more against us and we don’t go the whole way, I’ll still consider this season to be a success beyond my expectations, not only for getting into the top four, but in the manner, style and passion of the play that got us there.
I’d still be bitterly disappointed, though…