Posted in match reports

View from the armchair: London Irish 31 Sale 31 (GP)

What is it with Sale and second halves? Two games, two good half-time leads squandered; First half: 41–17, second half: 6–33.

OK, I’ll tell you what happened; in both cases, we lost an influential player just before half-time. That’s not an excuse, it’s a reason. The fact is that we should be able to cope with that. Someone – or the whole team – should step up and carry on the momentum. That this frequently does not happen is, I feel, the biggest obstacle to Sale lifting silverware in the foreseeable future.

Because the simple fact is that, when we surrender the initiative, we find it very, very hard to wrestle it back. We get on the back foot, we start giving away penalties – even when mounting an attack, we’ll likely give it back by going off-feet or holding on. There’s a collective brain fade that seems to happen, discipline goes to pot, anxiety sets in; it becomes almost a self-fulfilling disaster scenario.

However, there are several reasons why I remain, on balance, fairly sanguine about this result: van der Merwe, Curry, de Jager, Beaumont, Philips, du Preez, du Preez, Neild, de Klerk, Quirke, du Preez, to name a few. We played a significant portion of that game with three hookers in the pack and, arguably, three wingers in the backline. Given that, keeping it to a draw after losing both Curry, B and MacGinty doesn’t seem too shabby.

That said, this seeming inability to recover from losing the initiative does appear to be systemic and not just a result of this being very much a scratch team, so it remains a worry. But let’s take heart from the simple fact that we didn’t lose this one (although, to be honest, there was more than a bit of fortune in that – 10 points in missed kicks).

Things started brilliantly as AJ went over after two minutes, following a bullocking charge by Manu, who offloaded to Cliffy, who then put in the scoring pass. Seven-nil up and looking in control.

Things got even better after fifteen minutes when Cliffy somehow managed to keep the ball in play despite being bundled into touch, and JP showed the virtue of playing to the whistle by picking up the loose ball and passing to Marland, who danced through the Irish defence to register the second try. Fourteen points up and looking strong.

Mike Forshaw might be wanting a few words about the two Irish tries in the first half, though. The first was a sharp move from Irish scrum-half White, who took a quick tap in front of the posts while Sale’s defence was sleeping. The second came from a touchline ruck that Creevy dived over to score. He was able to do that because there was no one on that side of the ruck to stop him. Fourteen points given away with uncharacteristically sloppy defence, in a period when Sale were dominant.

Fortunately, in between those two scores, AJ pulled off another moment of brilliance, kicking a grubber through into the in-goal whilst being tackled. Sam James was first to the ball for Sale’s third try. Add to that a penalty kick by AJ, and the score was 14–24 after half an hour.

Then we got the incident that ultimately changed the game, as AJ went down in a tackle and injured his shoulder. Replays showed that Coleman had made contact with AJ’s head and was shown a yellow card for it. No problem with that – at the time I’d clocked as just a yellow – but I do wonder if the officials skipped over something worse. As AJ went down, one of the Irish props pivoted AJ over his body, crashing his face and shoulder into the ground – the immediate cause of the injury, it seems. I’m pretty sure that at least one of the replays showed that AJ went beyond the horizontal in the process: a red card offence. Nothing happened about it, but I feel there is a definite prima facie case for a citing there. We’ll see…

But, whatever, the damage had been done. Although AJ got up and carried on long enough to convert Cliffy’s outrageous skip down the touchline to score, he seemed to jar his shoulder in the act of kicking and went off (for an HIA, of all things) immediately afterwards but didn’t return.

With Ben Curry having gone off a few minutes earlier as well, we were now without two of the most influential players up to that point.

Irish missed a penalty to close the half and we went in 31–14 to the good. A bit worried about keeping the momentum going, but that was a healthy lead.

The second half started reasonably well, as we thought Curtis had scored after three minutes, but there was no clear evidence of a grounding, so it was denied. That turned out to be the last time Sale even hinted at adding to their score, other than a surprise break by TT Ross, who seemed to wonder what had happened and what was he supposed to do now? Anyway, it fizzled out and any brief excitement it caused swiftly returned to normal levels.

Two tries out wide by Parton brought Irish to within seven points with fifteen minutes to go – far too close for comfort and definitely a lengthy period of Squeaky Bum Time™, not helped by Jono having picked up Sale’s obligatory yellow card a minute before Parton’s second.

We somehow weathered the next ten minutes but, inevitably, with four minutes left, Rona scored out wide on the left to bring it to a two-point game with the conversion to come. Predictably, having already missed two wide conversions, Jackson nailed this one. All square and sphincters across the north-west tightened to a degree that would make a duck jealous.

But they held on and held on and, as the clock ticked toward the red, even started to press forward into the Irish half, and…

Gave away a penalty.

Jackson lined up the 55+ metre kick and, unlike the Bath effort last week, this one certainly had the legs to go all the way.

Fortunately, the direction was slightly off and it bounced back off the post and eventually referee Barnes blew the whistle to end the game. Bums unclenched and we were left wondering if that was two points dropped or two points retained.

So, two things: this inability to regain control when the tide of the match turns and giving away stupid penalties in the process. In fact, it’s probably the stupid penalties that stop them from regaining the momentum. Calm down, play sensibly, don’t panic, have patience and the reward will come.

Oh, Jono. Jono, Jono, Jono…

Let’s be clear: I’m not apportioning blame to anyone – they all played their hearts out trying to get the game back. Nobody had a poor game: those who came on acquitted themselves well. It’s just that the team as a whole seemed to deflate: the cohesiveness, the understanding went out the window. It’s not insurmountable, but it needs to be addressed.

I’m a bit concerned now about next week’s game against Exeter. I think we can assume that we’re down to Wilko (and Sam James?) at fly-half; Ben Curry may well have to take a rest having gone off twice in two weeks; we’re running out of choices in the back five; will Raffi have recovered? Exeter are going to be fired up to not lose three on the trot, so this is not a good time to be down to the bare bones of the squad. I can’t honestly say I’m looking forward with any real confidence to next week (but don’t let the team know that – they have to believe in themselves).

To end on a more positive note, wasn’t it good to see Denny out there, smiling and looking to be enjoying himself. Let’s hope for that as a major boost going into next week.



Photographer and science geek. Rugby fan (Sale Sharks).