Posted in match reports

View from the south stand: Sale 35 Leicester 26

Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? Well, if it’s fantasy, don’t wake me up, I’m enjoying myself.

This was a game of two— no! Must. Not. Say. It. Must. Not. Say. It. Mustn’t say “a game of two halves”.

Damn. Well, it was; sue me.

One thing this game hammered home to me is – something pretty obvious, really, but bear with me – that being invested in a game that’s in progress gives you a completely different view of what’s going on than being able to watch dispassionately.

Like nearly everyone (except the Tigers supporters), I spent much of the first half looking up to heaven and asking “what are you doing?” Aimless kicking, aimless running, lack of basic skills, a billion and one penalties…

All in all, a terrible, awful performance.

Except, no. Not really. Watching it again, comfortable in the knowledge of the outcome, I had to conclude that actually, the first half wasn’t a terrible performance. It wasn’t a low point in the journey to bottom-of-the-table obscurity. It really wasn’t bad.

Not that it was good. Don’t get me wrong, there was much to complain about in that first half, but the seeds of the second half are there if you look at it without the emotional baggage. It was not good, but neither was it a terrible display.

So what made the difference? Lots of things, really. First, and probably principally, the wind; the use of the bench by the respective DoRs — Sanderson was cannier than Borthwick in that regard, I felt; a greater belief in themselves second half because of — or the cause of — a reduction in silly errors and penalties; the fact that there was actually another team on the pitch who were doing their best to disrupt our play and who were very good at it.

Take the wind: in the first half, many (most?) of the Leicester kicks were going over the too-far advanced rear guard and hitting grass, meaning that the Sale players were having to waste time chasing after the ball, time that Leicester had to put pressure on the attempted clearance. I’ll cite AJ getting smothered on the five-metre line as the type specimen for this aspect of the game. By contrast, Cliffy seemed to be overcompensating and kicking too long, meaning that they weren’t under pressure when fielding the kicks.

Let me just insert a bit of an aside here.

He comes in for a lot of stick, but I’m going to suggest we would have had a lot fewer problems from the kicks in the first half had Hammers been at fullback. As electric as he is, Luke doesn’t yet have the fully developed positional sense of the seasoned 15. I think the conditions caught him out a bit in the first half and that Hammers would probably have fielded most of them, simply by virtue of experience.

On the other hand, I don’t see Hammers scoring Luke’s try…

In the second half, with the wind now in Leicester’s faces, their kicks were mostly caught and returned with interest, whether on the ground or in the air. Second half, a couple of mistakes aside, Gus Warr seemed to get the calculations right allowing Sale to pressurise the receiver and force mistakes or, at least, minimise their ability to return the favour.

Much has been made of Burns coming off (it’s not that I don’t believe you about the injury, Steve, it’s that I think you were BS’ing a poor decision), mostly because Hegarty then had a bit of a mare at fly-half. Leicester may have been better off leaving him at fullback and moving Wiggy to 10. Not that I’m complaining but, you know, I don’t like sloppy thinking. On the day, I thought that may have been the fatal error but, on rewatching, I don’t think it was. It was an error (unless Burns really was ‘injured’…) but not the fatal blow.

Update to add: it appears that Burns suffers from a condition called fascia compartment syndrome, which prevents him from playing more than 50-60 minutes. Apologies for the snarkiness, in that case.

No, the blow was struck, not by Borthwick, but by Sanderson bringing on fresh, young legs, earlier than might have been expected. By taking the decision to whip off a few guys who were performing a bit sub-par and trusting in their stand-ins, Sale managed to increase the momentum that they’d been given by Ben Curry’s almost opportunistic try. Two minutes before Ben broke through the maul to score, we had hit probably the lowest point of the match as yet another silly penalty gave Burns the chance to put Leicester sixteen points ahead. At that point, I was seriously worried that we were facing a Bath-esque tonking. It was looking like being a very long afternoon and ride home.

But then Ben worked his magic and Alex unleashed his tactical nukes. Jones and Langdon for Coenie and Ewan, Warr and Reed for Cliffy and Horse. This was also the time that Burns was given the shepherd’s crook.

Five minutes later and the value of those changes became devastatingly apparent. Ben feeds Curtis, who goes on a run that any centre would envy, Gus gets in the act with some quick ball, and Arron shows why he needs much, much more game time, ‘defensive frailties’ be damned.

I watched the Newcastle-Gloucester game the evening before, so had a good sight of Radwan and Rees-Zammit for comparison and I’m not going to call either of those two over Arron for speed. Rees-Zammit is, of course, streets ahead as a winger by virtue of international experience, but give Arron time and trust and we’ve got the winger I’ve been asking for in these reports for ages. Add in Tom Roebuck on the other side and it almost feels like we could get back to the Sale of twenty-odd years ago, when they were seen as a production line for top-class wingers. Oh, how I’d love to see that: the modern-day Reeses, Hanleys and Cuetos. Such joy.

Sam James got in on the act, too, coming on a bit later and continuing the progress towards some semblance of his old self.

So, does this mark the turning point in Sale’s season? It’s hard to be sure: it might be a turning point, along with last week’s win against Ospreys. Both matches followed a similar pattern: trying too hard early on, forcing play, butchering chances, then later on settling down a bit, letting it come and converting those chances. If we can cut out the early panicky stuff and get a win down at Quins next week, then those three games will be looking like contenders for the turnaround. Time will tell.

Shout-outs to everyone but especially Curtis, Gus and Arron for providing an extra gear in attack just when it was needed; Ben for making Tom’s absence irrelevant; the twins for… well, everything.

I’d like to put a word in here for the referee, Craig Maxwell-Keys. A few seasons back, I thought he was a bit too picky and didn’t have a feel for the game, but has since grown into one of the top refs in the Premiership. His handling of this game was impeccable. Communicated well, let the game flow and backed his own decisions. Only one reference to a TMO replay for a decision on Ben Curry grounding a ball before the Leicester player. Quite refreshing, really.

For the rest of the season, I think I’d like to see a shift in emphasis toward considering the likes of Arron Reed, Tom Roebuck, Gus Warr as being the first choices to start (in the absence of Faf and Raffi in Gus’s case: sorry, Gus), rather than being ‘finishers’. I say that, not in spite of their perceived inexperience and ‘failings’, but because I think they represent our best chance of securing Heineken Cup rugby next year. I honestly feel that we will do better for what is left of the season if we put our trust in the youth in the backs rather than relying on the old guard.

There comes a time when, as a fan, you sincerely want a favourite player to decide that it’s time to move on or retire because you feel it would be disrespectful to ask them to move on. You can be genuinely grateful to someone for everything they’ve given to the club — their blood, sweat and tears — but still feel they need to take second place to the future.

We now have possibly our best chance of taking a second major scalp in a row with a trip to The Stoop next Sunday. I know there are arguments for starting with much the same team as this (at least, in the backs) but I think I’d start Gus and Arron and keep Cliffy and Byron on the bench. We’re up against a running team, even if they are missing several key players, and I think we need the speedsters early on to play against that. Also, I’d expect a bunch of 20-ish-year-olds to last the full eighty minutes but, if not, a couple of old heads to steady the latter stages can’t hurt.

Things have been a bit too iffy this season for me to be too optimistic about the upcoming games, but I am feeling more confident about getting results than I was a couple of weeks ago. As I said last week, this team can beat Quins, I’m sure of it.

As long as they don’t beat themselves first.



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