There comes a point as a supporter (usually when the cold has consigned your toes to a distant memory) when you find yourself wondering why on earth you actually pay good money for this. But there are also those times (often in the same game) when you say this is why I pay good money to be here.
I have a confession: for many years now — going way back to Edgeley Park days — I’ve looked forward to the visit of Harlequins to these parts. We always seem to get decent, harum-scarum, games with lots of incident. I can’t recall a defensive bore-fest between these two teams in the last dozen or so years. The matches also tend to be (relatively) good-natured – the odd bit of handbags and some general niggle, as in this latest round, but never anything really nasty that I can recall.
I also have a small soft spot for them because, in a year when Wasps buggered off munching pizza and complaining about some water on the pitch, Harlequins played on through a Friday night blizzard. I can still remember groundsmen frantically clearing the lines on the pitch at one end whilst play carried on at the other.
Nobody who watched the playoffs from last season and the first few rounds of this would be under any illusions about the threat that Quins posed on this chilly autumnal night; a night that seemed to be made for their style of rugby: dry, crisp, fast surface. Watching them demolish Bristol (again!) the week before should have given any Sale fan pause for thought.
On the other hand, apart from the final, none of those last matches saw them up against a team with a defence like Sale’s and, when they did — against Exeter — they needed extra time to overcome it.
So it looked as if this game was going to test whether free, fast, broken-play rugby could prevail against a defence that, at its best, is arguably tighter than a duck’s proverbial.
Things started quite positively. After five minutes, the stats were 90+% possession and 100% territory in Sale’s favour. But when that carried on for another six or seven minutes without troubling the scorers, we were feeling a little concerned that the team weren’t able to convert all that dominance into a healthy lead. And it was dominance: the first maul set the pattern for mauls to come; when Quins did recover the ball, they didn’t get to keep it for long; Sale were doing everything bar putting points on the board.
Then about thirteen minutes in, a lovely pass from Raffi to Wilko, a (probably forward) lob-pass to Cobus, a charge through the Quins defence and an offload to Raffi gave Sale the first try and the lead, 7–0.
You would think that one of the things that would be drummed into the players in the days leading up to a game against Quins is to watch out for Danny Care if they get a penalty in your 22. As soon as the ref’s arm goes out, you should be making the contingency plan to shut him down – get someone onside who can tackle him if you can’t sneakily slow down his access to the ball as soon as the whistle goes.
Sale didn’t do that so, four minutes after taking the lead, it was all square again.
Wilko then kicked a penalty to make the score 10–7 at the end of the first quarter and you just got the feeling that there was never going to be more than one score in it.
…Until Sale reverted to form. After keeping fifteen men on the pitch for eighty minutes last week, a rash tackle saw Jono (who else?) off to the bin for most of what was left of the first half. Several thousand palms made contact with several thousand foreheads and a collective groan went up as we considered what Harlequins might do against fourteen men. When Tyrone Green waltzed over the line from about forty metres out, we were starting to wonder if it was going to get away from us.
But… remember that adage from last season? “If you want to beat Sale, don’t let them go down to thirteen men.” Somehow, as the bin and the half ran down, they bullied their way to a five-metre attacking line-out. Quins infringed to give another one, but this time Jono was back on the field.
Jono must have Jason Robinson’s scriptwriter because he was the one to drop over the line with the ball, not thirty seconds after coming back on to give (with Wilko’s well-struck conversion) a 17–14 lead at halftime.
Did Cobus suddenly wake up at 2:30 on Saturday morning in a cold sweat and palpitations? I wouldn’t be surprised following the horror of the first ten seconds of the second half, which saw him miss the kick-off and have to watch as Northmore picked it up on the bounce to put Quins back in the lead. Strangely, Smith missed the conversion, so it was now a 2-point game, 17–19. To be fair to Cobus, there should have been someone covering behind him.
Less than ten minutes later, though, Wilkinson kicked a penalty to give Sale the slenderest possible lead, 20–19, with more than half an hour still to go. Smith restored Quins’ lead a couple of minutes into the final quarter, but it was the three missed penalties from Wilkinson that baffled the watching masses. Firstly, why did he suddenly start missing routine kicks having looked pretty unflappable earlier in the game? But secondly, why were we taking the kicks anyway? We’d already established that we had a dominant maul – to the extent that even our maul defence was bullying Quins’ efforts. Why not go for the corner? There was plenty of time, the line-out was working well and our forwards looked up for it. I guess we might never know.
Having squandered nine points already, it was even more puzzling that Curtis, having replaced Wilkinson, stepped up to take another penalty with time running out. It was fairly tricky for a right-footed kicker but he nailed it and the crowd, as they say, went wild. Five minutes to go, one point ahead: could we hold out? Squeaky bum time beckoned…
One of the things that makes Quins so dangerous is the way that they play on the edge of obstruction. Watch them and see how often a pass goes to someone who is behind another player. This means that the runner is often coming out of someone else’s shadow, allowing them that extra millisecond to break the gain line. It’s a testament to Sale’s defence that this tactic only worked when Jono was off the pitch. Their other two tries came from a typical Care snipe and from a bit of luck.
So it was that, with time running out, the only way they could cross the line was to also cross that edge of obstruction. Just as we were thinking “oh, no”, referee Foley’s whistle was pulling play back for a penalty to Sale. A couple of penalties later and Sale have an attacking line-out a few metres from the Quins line. And then over goes Raffi again for Sale’s third try. Some question of whether there was a double movement, but the review showed that he reached out legally to touch the line, so there we were 28–22 and the chance of denying them even a losing bonus point. That didn’t happen, since Tom Curtis missed the kick but he ran down the clock doing so, so they didn’t even get the opportunity to go for the sneakiest of late tries to snatch it.
And there we had it: an important win against one of our chief rivals and done with so many front-line players still missing.
It would almost be unfair to give plaudits for contributions unless I mention everyone who stepped out onto that field.
Raffi is growing in stature by the game. I thought that he may have been guilty of pushing too hard to try to make things happen, but don’t let that detract from an immense performance bookended by a pair of wonderful tries.
Wilkinson had a wobble with the kicking towards the end, but I felt he looked good for most of the game and has a good future ahead of him. Curtis also looked assured when he came on.
I’ll reiterate what I’ve said before: isn’t it wonderful to see Denny back, enjoying himself and regaining his mojo. He may only be 80% at the moment, but the old fire is there and I expect fireworks in the next few games.
Elsewhere in the backs, Manu looks fit and raring, Hammers had his best game in some time, Sam James showed flashes of his old brilliance and Byron was there doing Byron things.
In the forwards, both front rows held up well to their opposition, with only one occasion where it looked as if Marler bought a penalty against Schonert by fooling the ref. Cobus, brain fart aside, had another influential game, as did Jono (brain fart aside). The twins were just there as always, carrying, being nuisances and getting in their opponents’ faces and on their nerves. JP came on later and kept things going seamlessly.
Have I missed anyone?
Oh, yes. The deciding factor. The reason we won. Quite simply, the difference. Tom Curry. Twenty-eight metres from ten carries, eight passes, ten tackles, four turnovers won. Boy, have we missed him.
Welcome back, Tom.
Finally, a quick mention for the referee. I’ve not been a big Tom Foley fan in the past but I thought he had a good game here. He kept it flowing, handled incidents well and mostly got everything right.
So, great game, great result, job done, time to look to the next one. Leicester away. Not going to be easy, but neither was Quins. Despite their start, I honestly think we can do it. A pity it’s not on the telly – should be some serious fireworks.