Any fireworks on the night were firmly confined off-pitch as Sale completed a workmanlike but efficient win over a somewhat under-strength Saints team.
To be honest, this was a much more comfortable victory than I had anticipated. After the debacle of the previous week, we were all hoping for a positive reaction from the players. But this is Sale: we’re Olympic class pessimists, so I was feeling a good amount of trepidation standing on the south stand, watching some of the England game on the (alarmingly swaying) big screen and feeling the first hints that the liquid nitrogen cooling system in the concrete steps had been switched on.
The manner of the game was set in the first ten minutes or so: Saints started with an early attack, pressurising the line, but Sale’s defence held firm until Ben Curry got his mitts on the ball to win the penalty and relieve the pressure. Saints did kick a penalty on five minutes, but that was the only time they took the lead and it was followed more or less immediately by Sale applying pressure to their line for a good five minutes or more.
When Akker scored during that period of dominance, we were all hoping that it foreshadowed lots more to come, but it seems that Sale are still struggling to turn pressure into tries. Two penalties midway through the half were all that Sale had to show for a pretty dominant display by halftime.
Northampton kicked their second and final penalty goal right at the end of the first half. The referee had already indicated that there would be a restart after the kick and Sale, to their credit, made a decent attempt at an attack on the Saints line, but the half ultimately ended with a speculative cross kick bouncing into touch.
The second half started brightly, with Sale recovering the ball from the kick-off and camping out in the Northampton 5-metre zone before AJ popped over a delicate little kick for Marland to collect and register the second try.
Unfortunately, it was then another forty minutes before try number three came along, courtesy of Jono, with only an AJ penalty to move the scoreboard in between. On the upside, though, they nilled Saints for the whole half, despite some serious attacking pressure. In fact, there was only one “uh, oh” moment in the whole game, when Litchfield broke through from around the ten-metre line into the Sale 22 before being brought down. Other than that, Sale’s defence looked quite comfortable all match and gave the Northampton attack nothing to work with.
So, a much-needed win after a sub-standard start to the season. As I said up top, workmanlike and efficient but not spectacular.
But there are still a couple of areas of concern.
The scrum, whilst mostly stable, wobbled badly for a while in the second half, going backwards and giving away penalties even on our own put-in. It didn’t affect the result, and it regained some measure of control, but that was a somewhat worrying period.
Then there’s the seeming inability to turn possession, territory and pressure into tries that has been an issue for a while. I’m tempted to take comfort in the idea that what we needed right now was a win and that the try bonuses will come as they regain their self-belief. This is true but the little demon that is still around is wondering if it’s precisely that lack of conversion that is the reason that we currently need a win – any win.
Even given that this was a pretty comfortable win, by a big margin, I still worry that we should be able to convert pressure at a higher rate than we do. The factors that contributed to the disparity in the score were Sale’s defence, Saints’ loss of key players and the relative abilities of AJ and Grayson when faced with a swirling wind. Change one of those, and it could have been a lot closer.
But enough of that: the positives from this game far outweigh the negatives. Akker back, for one. What a difference he makes, especially now that his line-out throwing has improved massively. Having Ben Curry on the pitch, burying his arms up to the neck in a ruck to turn over the ball is as influential as having his brother there doing the same thing. I still can’t grok why Jones thinks one is first on the team sheet but the other is to be ignored. It’s like saying you like chocolate but, when someone offers you chocolate, turning it down, because you don’t like chocolate. Maybe that’s why the RFU doesn’t pay me large sums of money to pick the England team.
After some shaky defence last week (I assume – I haven’t been able to summon up the courage to watch it), this week we were back to duck’s arse levels of tightness, much of this being down to having a reasonable-strength side again, especially in the forwards. In fact, of the 23, only Warr, Poss and Dugdale are not nailed-on starting regulars (I’m including JJ as a regular because of his previous stint) and, even then, Poss and Dugdale are on the fringe of being regulars. And it won’t be long before Gus is pushing the others a bit harder, too.
While we’re talking of Gus Warr, I thought his game was pretty much a mirror of the team as a whole: workmanlike, efficient, not flashy. There are improvements still to be made, of course – that’s only to be expected – but I thought he looked pretty calm and composed throughout his stint. Maybe having AJ outside him helped, but I expect to see Raffi and Gus being the ones to take us forward in a couple of years.
And, on the subject of scrum halves, it was good to see Nye Thomas get a few minutes in the limelight, during which he managed to get in the faces of a couple of Northampton forwards. It was like a terrier facing down a bulldog. Great stuff. He’ll go far if he keeps that up.
In the backs, Sam James was starting to look a bit more like his old self. Hammersley, like the others, was efficient, clinical and unspectacular. On a night like that, though, it’s so comforting to have someone really, really reliable under the high ball.
And then there was AJ. On a filthy night of rain and swirling wind, to kick six out of six was an object lesson in composure. And, yes, they did all go over, despite what it looked like from behind the posts. The TJs stand where they do for a reason. From the back of the stand, you have no depth perception to see where in its flight the ball crosses the plane of the try line, so it’s very hard to judge, especially if it goes above the height of the posts. Watch the replay, with the camera behind the ball and you can see that it never strays outside the uprights.
Add to his place kicking a delicious lofted chip for Marland’s try and for just generally being the calm eye of the storm and the general in the front line and we’ll forgive him the occasional out-on-the-full (yes, Gus’s too).
And let’s also give a hand to the ref. I thought he had a decent game, given that it was only his eighth, I believe. There were a couple of high tackles that I thought maybe could have done with another coat of looking at, but overall he let the game flow and got most things right.
So, a needed win, up two places in the table and now a couple of weeks of Premiership Cup action. To be honest, I can’t get that enthused about it this year. I see it more as a welcome bit of rest and recovery time before getting back to the Premiership proper and <checks diary>… oh, good grief. Saracens away. Maybe Raffi or Cliffy will be fit again and England won’t have broken Manu or Tom. Still, it’s got to be done sometime, but I’m not feeling too hopeful right now.
And I’ve just noticed: we have Newcastle at home in the Prem Cup on the 19th, but then it goes Sarries away, bye week, Newcastle away, Ospreys away. We don’t have a home game between the 19th of November and the 18th of December (Clermont). Who’s in charge of scheduling? I’d like a word…