It was as if the previous eighteen months hadn’t happened. Familiar view, familiar faces (some sadly missing – we remember them), familiar Sale second-half implosion and — hooray! (?) — the return of Squeaky Bum Time™.
You’re not a proper Sale Sharks supporter if can’t find anything to moan about so, if you’ll indulge me for a couple of paragraphs, let’s have at it
I still don’t get the need to pre-book the bus. I don’t mind paying a pound — that seems a reasonable charge for the service — but I don’t really buy the “we need to know numbers” reason for having to decide in advance. A couple of seasons before lockdown’s example should have been enough evidence that ‘if you put the service on, people will use it’. My experience was that there was always a queue waiting for the bus and the bus was always full. Offer a season ticket for it — I’m sure there would be plenty of takers — but don’t freeze out the casual fan who wants to decide on the day and just rock up and pay a pound.
Secondly, can this be the first and last game that we have to suffer that bloody awful ‘boom, boom, boom’ thing? It’s too loud, it’s intrusive, and it’s patronising. On several occasions, we were just getting a chant going when that godawful racket started up, killing any spontaneity from the crowd. When will the club learn? They’ve tried this cheerleading lark several times in the past and they’ve all fallen flat. We don’t need to be led – we’re not Americans – we can make our own decisions and, quite frankly, we’re better at it than some random DJ. Take heed and let’s never hear it again.
Anyway, that’s my five minutes of churlishness done. These are relatively minor grumbles: they’re not going to bring about the end of the world and let’s not forget that we’re coming out of a very difficult time for the club with a significant loss of income over the last year and a half. It’s just that, minor they may be but, added to a couple of others, you do start to wonder who’s making some of the decisions and do they really understand the fans?
Let me just counter the previous grumbling in small part by echoing the views of many in sending heartfelt thanks to the ticket office staff for sorting out the (Ticketmaster?) cock-up that meant that so many of us didn’t get our season tickets when they were first sent out. I can just picture a small cave full of Gringott’s gnomes (sorry, Ange) working their way through a pile of emails all containing a variant of “where’s my bloody season ticket?”, pushing buttons amid flashing lights and strange beeps, with a slave master grinning evilly and stroking a whip as they toil through the night.
Sorry, where was I?
My feeling before the match was that it would be decided by which team had brought a kicker. As happens, neither did; but, even so, it was the kicks wot won it in the end. Two specific kicks, to be precise: Wilkinson’s with a minute left and Bailey’s a minute after that. One was easy and went over, one was difficult and missed. Such are the margins these days.
Sale dominated the opening 35 minutes: Bath barely managed any time in the Sale half of the pitch. Their only meaningful incursion was the last surge that ended in Hammers going to the bin and Cips kicking their sole first-half points.
For the first twenty minutes, it looked as if this game was going to go the way of the Bristol game back in May: lots of endeavour, but no scoring. In that time, we passed into touch, missed a penalty, buggered up a line-out, knocked on on the line, kicked the ball dead, kicked a touch from one 22 to the other, bullied the Bath scrum, made some incisive runs (take a bow, Raffi) and generally looked on top, overshadowing Cipriani’s return to the AJ Bell with some aplomb.
Then Rob finally put one of the many penalties Bath were giving away between the posts, and we were off.
Twenty-nine minutes in, a close line out, a good drive and – inevitably, I suppose – Akker scored Sale’s first try of the new campaign (although the Premiership app had Marland as the scorer, possibly because the commentator thought it might have been him. But it was Akker: Marland was behind him, pushing).
Five minutes later, Raffi broke through again, offloading to Byron to score near the posts. 17–0 up, we were up and running and expecting a bonus-point win at least.
But it was at this point that the game turned. In making the offload, Raffi hyperextended a muscle and had to go off. The game restarted while he was being treated, which meant we were defending down to fourteen for a while before Cliffy came on. Maybe that added some pressure that allowed Bath to stage their first meaningful attack on the line, ending with Hammers illegally batting the ball out of the hands of the man with the tragic haircut, Tom Dunn. That earned him a spell in the bin but may just have been the difference between Bath using the advantage to score a try and them kicking the penalty.
When you’re 17–3 up and in possession of the ball with the first-half clock in the red, the pragmatic thing to do is to hoof it in to touch and go in for your half-time cuppa, regroup and plan how to push on in the second half.
This being Sale, of course, they decided to run the ball from halfway in an attempt to get another score, coughed it up close to the Bath line and nearly gave away a score at the other end. I mean, it’s all very well eschewing the pragmatic. If it comes off, it looks like a fantastic decision but equally, if it goes wrong, you look like a prat.
I’d like to skip over the second half, since it was such a typical case of mal de Sale – that condition in which a team fails to regain control of a match that they were dominating, having briefly been put on the back foot.
But, in the interests of a complete report, I suffered the second half again on replay. (Actually, I skipped forward to all the talking points. Just leaving out the interminable setting of scrums cut the time down by about 25%.)
So, the essentials. Ojomoh’s deliberate knock-on: no quibbles. The sanction in the laws is a penalty, and that’s what was given. Nothing there to suggest a card was warranted.
The Bath try: personally, I find it questionable. The TMO said that momentum carried them forward from the post protector to the line. I couldn’t see that. Yes, they went forward and crushed the protector, but you could not clearly see the ball on the line. What did happen was that a second movement definitely did hit the line, but that’s a penalty offence. I don’t think the ref was in a position to see it touch the line from initial momentum, so I think it was a dubious decision. But, hey, I’m not the ref…
The first challenge on Byron in the air: perfectly fine. A good challenge for the ball.
The second challenge on Byron in the air: definite penalty, some refs may have shown a card.
Having watched Wayne Barnes explain the new ruling around scoring a try, I thought that JP’s effort might have been worth a closer look. It appeared from the one replay that he didn’t lose contact with the ball, and contact is the important criterion now, not control. The TMO had a quick look, but I felt it warranted a closer examination.
Other than that, Sale never recovered from losing momentum at the end of the first half. Even when they were attacking, it wasn’t really convincing and usually fizzled out. The one genuinely threatening attack ended with Rob du Preez losing contact with the ball as he got to the line (two hands, Rob, two hands…).
So, in the end, it came down to the kicking. We were fortunate that Bath had Cipriani kicking rather than someone who could kick three in a row. We were also fortunate that the final penalty was sufficiently far out to be genuinely in doubt. But, then, that penalty only came about because we failed to get the ball at the restart – another persistent problem.
I’m not going to bash Rob. Yes, the second-half penalty miss was a howler, but no worse than Sam James putting a kick dead in the first half. And he kicked four of six: Bath got five of seven: I’d call that parity. Everyone overcooks a kick for touch sometimes, it just happened at a bad time. His work in getting to the line was exemplary and, again, everyone drops the ball at some point.
So no; no Rob bashing. Let’s rather focus on the fact that this was a win: close, uncomfortably close, bum-clenchingly, agonisingly close, but a win. A win we probably would not have got in any of the preceding seasons since 2006. That’s no small achievement.
Highlights for me included Raffi taking his chance and revelling in it. Axe calls him the “little unicorn”, so it was good to see him putting a Faf-esque basketball spin on the ball whilst waiting to put it into the scrum. Raffi going off was, I believe, the cause of the change of fortune. As dependable as Cliffy is, he doesn’t present the threat around the fringes, so Bath could afford to spread their defence a bit more. Fortunately, it looks as if the injury wasn’t serious, otherwise, I think we’d be struggling until Faf comes back.
Wiese was a monster all game. Hitting hard, carrying well, being an enforcer. One of the best recent signings.
Marland just carries on being an absolute nuisance in the face of the opposition. A completely different player to the one who used to turn out for Quins.
Sharky had a decent debut; I hope the wobbly legs going off were just exhaustion and not something serious.
Also, nice to see that amongst the first people to go up to young Bailey and offer support were Rohan and Manu. Good on you, lads.
A word (again) about the ref. It’s all very well, in the heat of battle, pointing out why his every decision against us is hopelessly wrong and questioning his eyesight, education and parentage. This is right and proper and the correct behaviour for supporters during a match. Afterwards, though, we should remove the blue-tinted glasses, spit out the sour grapes and make an honest assessment. Ridley had a decent game. As is always the case, a dispassionate review indicates that he got most decisions right and others were down to interpretation. Given that he is the sole arbiter of fact, that should be an end of it. We can query, but we can’t really complain. My only criticism of him would be that I think he needs to assert himself more. One day his “well, I thought it was still in, so you were offside” will become “it was still in, you were offside”. At that point, I think he’ll be a decent ref.
Looking forward, we’re going to have to improve on that performance or we’ll struggle against Irish at their place and we’ll get tonked by Exeter. If this game has cleared the cobwebs, then I think we can do it.