Posted in match reports

View from the armchair: Harlequins 14 Sale Sharks 36 [GP]

Commentator: “Esterhuizen is immense in the centres – a real wrecking ball”.

Manu: “Hi, my name’s Manu. Have we met?”

This weekend has finally put one question to bed. At 1pm on Sunday, I was still smarting at the manner of England’s capitulation to Scotland the day before. By 2:45 I had completely forgotten about it. So I now know that, for me at least, the answer to the question “club or country?” is clearly “club”.

Mind you, in the hour and three-quarters between, I must have gone through every emotion on the books and then some. Joy, apprehensiveness, elation, fear, despair, hope… It’s never boring, is it?

Ever since that win against Leicester the week before, I had been convinced that we would be able to beat Quins at their place; indeed this was going to be our best chance of doing that in yonks (Sale/Quins games have gone with the home team for several seasons, now). But there’s always that nagging demon in the mind of any seasoned Sale supporter that loves to remind us that, on their day, Sale are capable of buggering up the best of chances, so I sat down for this game with that all-to-familiar mix of anticipation and dread that we all know so well.

For most of the first half, I was wondering if the teams had swapped kit before the start, as Quins went through the litany of dropped balls, missed passes and kicks to nowhere that we’ve become all too familiar with this season. Meanwhile, Sale were stringing phases together, breaking the gain line and just generally looking dangerous and in control. Two Quins-esque tries from Tom Roebuck merely added to the impression that we were watching the wrong teams.

Look, I know he’s a cocky little gobshite, but I have a lot of respect for Danny Care. He’s still a good scrum-half, quick and dangerous with a good rugby brain, as they say. And fully acknowledging his ability actually makes it even more delicious to watch him get stitched up a treat by, first, Raffi and then, later, Faf. Ashman’s try was possibly my favourite purely for the way Raffi did to Quins what Care so often does to other teams: slice them up with a quick penalty.

That scramble to the spot, tap and hand-off to Ewan has to go down as one of the highlights of the season. I can’t get enough of rewatching it. The look on their faces…

Much was made of Quins being under strength. I notice nobody was making excuses for us when we were fielding third, fourth and fifth choice players for multiple games earlier in the season. Anyway, they may have been a bit light in the forwards, but that looked like a close to first-choice backline. Smith may have been in Edinburgh, but they still had an international fly-half on the pitch.

So I’m not buying it. Quins’ reputation for at least the last two seasons has been built on their free-flowing back play. Given that at least five of the seven backs out there were regular recipients of plaudits for that style of play, I have to conclude that, actually, their reputation is entirely due to the presence of Marcus Smith since, without him, they were running around like headless chickens.

Maybe it was the conditions; in the first half, Quins faced wind and sun in the same way that Sale did against Leicester the week before. And, like Sale, kicks went wrong, balls got dropped, passes went astray. Meanwhile, pretty much everything Sale attempted seemed to come off. Bizarro world for the Sale fan.

But then – as is inevitable in any match – as we neared half time, the balance of play shifted slightly towards Quins. They were spending time in the Sale half and, although still fumbling, were starting to put some moves together. An ill-advised counter-attack by Sale – ill-advised because the clock was red and we’d just turned over the ball on our line – gave Quins a score that they, quite frankly, didn’t deserve.

Now, one can admire a bit of derring-do and, had Arron managed to go the length of the pitch we would still be bouncing on Saturday. But there’s a time and a place for it and this is where I think wiser heads ought to have prevailed. As I said, Quins were getting a bit more of the play at that point and they were threatening the line. When we stripped that ball, if someone had just kicked it dead to end the half, we would have put serious brakes on their resurgence. Yes, a length-of-the-field try would have done the same, but compare the probabilities of either of those coming off. In fact, you don’t have to, since the risky one failed: we spilled the ball, Quins recovered it and scored. That handed them a bit of momentum for the second half.

And here’s where I want to pour a cup of cold water on the celebrations. At half time Sale had conceded three or four penalties to Quins’ five or six. At full time that count had gone to thirteen-seven. So, in the second half, Sale gave up nine or ten penalties to Quins’ one or two. What changed?

Remember that slight shift in the balance of play? I think that caused (probably subconsciously) a slight panic reaction, causing them to push the line a bit harder and so overstep it more often. Just as all this season and last, the penalties are those of over-eagerness: offside, holding, sealing off. It’s not as obvious in this game, because the balance didn’t as obviously swing to Quins; in fact, Sale even scored the first of Rob’s tries in this period. But there was a shift (relative to the first thirty-five minutes) and this coincided with an uptick in Sale getting on referee Tempest’s wrong side.

And they managed to do that so effectively that what looked to me to be perfectly good turnover by Bev got penalised (for offside, IIRC). It just goes to show that this panicky mode is counter-productive in more ways than just penalties given away.

OK, cold water poured: back to the plaudits.

Good to see that Alex reads my reports and took my advice to play Reed and Roebuck from the start. The difference it makes, having some pace in the back three, plus a dynamic scrummy like Raffi, is quite stark. From struggling to score three, we’ve now put five over for two games in a row.

There’s a knock-on effect in the centres, too. Rohan has been much more effective over the last few games than he has been for a while, now. Less prone to dropping the ball in contact, more effective as a dummy runner and altogether a much more threatening presence.

Rob had his best game this season, possibly in the last twelve months. Again, the space afforded by the threat of pace on the outside gives him a bit more time to make decisions and, as a consequence, he’s making better decisions and executing them better.

How much of the team’s general fumbliness (yes, that is now officially a word) arose from the team feeling cramped and rushed by not having the options that all that extra gas made available?

I should also single out Jono, who has followed Jean-Luc in channelling his aggression within legal bounds and cutting out the silliness that was hurting the team. It’s things like this that enable them to build up a head of steam, get that momentum going and produce results like this. We can praise the Reeds, Roebucks and Jameses all we want, but I genuinely think that it these small things, like Jono not giving away stupid penalties or Rohan not dropping as many balls in contact, that are making a big difference and allowing the young lads to strut their stuff.

I have to mention the return of Faf, Manu and Cobus after so long out. Cobus was, I thought, more subdued in his return than the other two but he’ll be back to full monster status soon enough, you watch.

And then we have Faf and Manu. How dispiriting must it be to see off Raffi and Rohan, only for those two to walk out. It’s a bit like back in the day when cricket teams wouldn’t want to get either of the West Indian openers out because they knew that that would just bring Viv Richards to the crease: “Yay! We got Gordon out… oh, bugger.”

And it took – what? – two minutes for Manu to, as Flats put it, ‘melt’ the ‘most effective centre in the premiership’. Just thinking of it still makes me wince. Put it up there alongside Seabass flattening the Agen fly half at Edgeley Park and John Fowler wiping out Pienaar at Heywood Road.

And poor Danny Care. Fifty minutes of wondering where Raffi is and he’s got Faf’s smiley face to give him nightmares.

Can we just talk for a minute about Faf’s kick for Rob’s second try? Have a look – there was no “luck of the bounce” there, it was carefully kicked to force the ball to stand up, rather than shoot forward. A high trajectory with a little bit of backspin gave it the maximum chance of popping up into the onrushing arms of RdP. Class, absolute class.

More of the same next week, please. I’ll repeat what I said after the Leicester game: I think Reed and Roebuck need an extended run on the wings, not despite their ‘inexperience’, but because I think they represent our best chance of finishing much higher up the table. The old guard has served us well, and we honour them for it, but it’s time to pass the flame to those who will carry it for the next ten years.

Have we turned a corner? It certainly feels like it but, really, only hindsight will tell for sure. If we can win seven or eight of the remaining ten games (and with six home and four away, that’s not unreasonable), then I’d say the last few matches were the turning point, this and Leicester being the pivotal ones. Leicester for the comeback, Quins for turning the screw.

We have to send Dimes away unhappy on Saturday because I can’t see Wasps failing to get five at home to Bath. A good win could take us above Irish, who I can’t see coming away with much from Ashton gate. Could we also overtake Exeter? Given their current form and the way Glos are playing, it’s possible.

So an emphatic win on Saturday is a must.

But, oh, that tackle…



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