Honestly, I didn’t think we would take this one: too many front-line absentees for comfort and at least one starting that I was afraid was coming back too soon from an injury (and it looks as if I was right).
On reflection, though, when you consider that all of Exeter’s tries came when Rohan was out of the game (he was being treated near halfway when they scored their first) and that their third was a bit flukey, I believe that we could have done it, had the tide of fortune turned our way a little and if a couple of players hadn’t suffered severe brain farts at inopportune times.
It started so well, too. A couple of minutes in, maul on the 5-metre line, bish, bash, bosh and Ross Harrison scores his second try in, like, a hundred years. The conversion goes over, giving Rob a bit of confidence (because it wasn’t a gimme), then a penalty after ten minutes and we’re 10–0 up, job’s a good ’un, bonus point win in the bag, bring on Gloucester.
When Exeter settled for a penalty goal after a concerted period of attack on the Sale line, it felt like a small victory. The defence was holding up superbly, Exeter couldn’t break through and it looked as if they may have been a bit out of sorts because of the new law basically removing their principal weapon. They’ve relied for so long on the goal-line recycle, recycle, recycle that taking away the option of starting again from a 5-metre scrum has left them in a transition phase between strategies.
You would think that winning the ball back in your own 22, with a minute or so left in the half, you’d go safety first, hoof it into touch and try to nick the restart or, at least, put in a stifling action in midfield.
Hoof it? – yes. Touch? – what do you think? An easy collect in midfield, something happens to Rohan, the defence doesn’t adjust in time and Slade’s in for the score. Ten-all at half-time, instead of ten-three up.
It always seems to happen just before half-time, doesn’t it? Bath scored just before half-time, AJ went off just before half-time, Exeter score just before half-time. And that seems to set the stage for the second half.
Look, it doesn’t matter what you think. You may have the perfect argument as to why the current laws around the tackle are wrong, but that’s irrelevant. You may want to argue about intent: that’s not the point. The law is what it is and referees have been instructed to interpret it in a specific way, and that interpretation means that if you go into a tackle without bending at the waist and without getting your arms in position to wrap, then you are more likely to get a red card if any part of your body connects with the opponent’s head. The players must know this, yet still they risk it. Maybe they know exactly why the law and its interpretation are unworkable, why it’s impossible to bend for every tackle. Maybe they do and maybe they’re right, but it doesn’t matter; only the current law matters.
So Rohan had to go: he was upright, his arms had barely left his sides and his shoulder connected with Skinner’s head. That Skinner went off as a result is enough indication that the impact was “with force”.
From that point on, it was a doomed enterprise. Slade went over from the very next play and then, a couple of minutes later, a brain fart from Rob saw Witty charge down his chip and win the dribbling race to the line.
A moment of madness, two sucker blows and it’s “time, gentlemen, please” and “last one out turn the lights off”.
But, give them their due: they rallied and held Exeter out for twenty-two of the twenty-eight minutes they were down to fourteen and even managed to pull things back a bit with a try from Ewan Ashman, dancing down the side-line to score in the corner. For a moment, during the review, we thought it was going to be Mark Cueto all over again, but the officials were satisfied that he didn’t stray into touch and the try was given. A small comfort to take home with us.
As a parting gift, this game gave an already beleaguered team a further blow when Rob went down in a late tackle and did his shoulder again. Add that to Hill and Neild going off with what looked like painful injuries and things are looking bleak for the next few weeks.
I hear that the du Preez twins are back in Carrington. If so, I expect them both to play against Gloucester: we absolutely need a talisman or two to put some heart into the side for the challenges to come. I don’t know when Tom is available — I suspect not until Quins and, boy, will we need him — but we need someone to take some of the burden off of JP, Cobus and Jono.
Also, if I’m reading the reports correctly, Raffi should be available to play at Gloucester as well. Apparently, he’s been missing because he can’t take needed painkiller injections within two weeks of a COVID injection. That time should be up, so we may see him reappear next game. We missed him, but at least he’s got the brains in his head to know that getting vaccinated is vital.
Anyway, plaudits: JP is certainly growing into his role and was very impressive; Cobus is shaping up to be arguably the better brother and Jono got the balance right, tackling everything, aggressive, but on the right side of the law. If only he’d trusted himself instead of shipping a horrible pass out wide…
One thing that was very apparent for 50 minutes was how much we suffer without a good jackaller. In the absence of a Curry, we don’t compete strongly enough at the ruck. It was only when Bev came on after the aforementioned 50 minutes that we started to see Exeter pinged for holding on. So, gold star to him for that.
Curtis and Ewan both had solid games: the line-outs and scrums were secure and they put themselves about in the loose.
Marland did Marland things, as ever.
Sam Hill had one of his better games until his injury. Let’s hope it wasn’t serious – we might need him.
I loved the way Sale’s game speeded up when Gus Warr came on. Cliffy’s a solid player, with a lot of nous (brain fart aside), but Gus brings a bit of that Raffi zip to the game. Between those two, the next few seasons look very bright in that department.
Denny could well turn into a very good fullback. He’s not there yet, though: some positional and tactical errors and a couple of dropped catches marred the performance. Mind you, it’s so good to see him out there enjoying playing after all he’s been through that I’m going to pass over all that and just be happy for him and look to the future.
The next few weeks could be a nightmare or they could be the coming of age of a few players. With the autumn internationals coming up and too many pretty serious injuries, we’re likely to struggle. Gloucester, Harlequins, Leicester, Northampton, Saracens… it’s hard to see where the wins are going to come from unless South Africa decide they don’t need the twins, Ben is passed fit to play and Wilkinson steps up to the mark in the absence of AJ and Rob.
It looks like Manu’s only going to get one week off.
I’m not denigrating the effort put in by everyone who played – they were fabulous and I see only good things over the coming seasons – but a gutsy defeat is still a defeat. We’re fortunate that it’s still so early in the season and there’s plenty of time to claw back any ground lost, but it’s going to be hard watching over the next few weeks.
Maybe I’m being overly pessimistic but, right now, it feels as if the fates are conspiring against us.
If everything goes our way, I can see a possible starting lineup of Bev, Tommy, Sharky; JP, J-L; Ben, Jono, Dan; Raffi, Wilko; Marland, Manu, SJ, Byron; Denny. I’d be happy with that: that team stands a good chance down at Kingsholm.
I might – just – be convincing myself that all will be well. Let’s see what the future holds…