It’s like déjà vu all over again.
I was thinking that I could just copy the Leicester report, Tippex out a few names and save myself a lot of typing. After all, the pattern of this match was almost identical to the one two weeks ago. As in that game, Sale made heavy weather of playing into the wind in the first half and then dominated the second half. Also – as with the Leicester game – on sober review, the first half was not as bad as it seemed at the time.
What was as bad as it seemed was the number of penalties needlessly given away. At the risk of upsetting any Worcester fans who may have accidentally wandered over here, the only reason they got any points at all, let alone a half-time lead, was because we kept gifting them possession and territory. The rest of the time, Worcester showed virtually no threat in attack at all. No penetration, no ideas.
Sale, though – when they weren’t making a present of five-metre lineouts – always looked likely to burst through. The threats came from everywhere: Reed and Roebuck; Manu; AJ; Faf and Raffi; Jean-Luc and Langdon. All, at one point or another, made telling and devastating inroads into the Worcester defence. And those were the obvious ones: add on Cobus Wiese dominating his tackler, Cam Neild’s lovely grubber for Arron’s second, Sam James’s mojo slowly filling up, RdP putting Sam through for the opening try, RJvR’s line and run for the closing try.
Quite frankly, were it not for the penalties and some less than stellar kicking from hand (*cough*Faf*cough*), we should have had the bonus point by half-time. If anything is going to hinder Sale’s progress up the table in the second half of the season, it’s themselves. And you can’t (legitimately) blame the referee. I thought he had a decent game, all round. Kept it going, checked unobtrusively with his TMO, backed his own decisions. I know we all like to have a downer on Dickson, suggesting that he doesn’t like us (I don’t think that’s true of any ref, BTW) but, honestly, he could have binned someone at the end of the first half and we wouldn’t have had anything to complain about. For the record, the penalty count was 8–3 a couple of minutes before half-time.
I’m not sure what I can add that I haven’t said in the previous three reports. Reed and Roebuck, what more can be said? Arron Reed has gone from “yeah, he’s quick but…” to first-choice left wing in seemingly no time at all. Tom Roebuck seems to have risen to the heights in a similarly abrupt fashion, although I don’t recall him having the same caveats attached that accompanied Arron.
Given the impact those two have had, allied to Raffi’s obscene amount of talent and Bev’s quiet efficiency, it must be tempting to suggest throwing in some more of the youngsters – Wilkinson, Curtis, Doherty and so on – to see if they have a similar impact.
I’d counsel caution over that thought, though. Reed and Roebuck (and, to some extent, Quirke and Rodd) have come in where there was a notable deficiency in the team: an area where something new was needed. That’s not to diss the previous incumbents – they brought a level of experience and nous that has been very valuable – but they couldn’t supply that one thing that was lacking in the team as a whole: raw pace.
I’m not sure that we have such an obvious lack in other areas; fullback, maybe, but Luke is growing into that role. So, much as I think that some of those lads need their time in the spotlight, the balance of the team is, for me, about right now. We’ve got the old heads where they can do the most good and the exuberant youth where they are most effective.
That said, we do need to keep them interested and humming. We’re one injured shoulder (again) away from having a fly-half crisis similar to the recent scrum-half difficulties. Yes, Rob could move back there, but I’m starting to like him at outside centre. I don’t quite know how you keep the Wilkinsons and Curtises and others active and ready but that’s Axe’s problem, not mine.
Faf or Raffi to start? Putting aside for the moment the hope that Eddie Jones comes to his senses and takes the decision out of Alex’s hands, based on this game I’d say that it has to be Raffi. The increase in tempo and swift decision making when he came on was undeniable. The quick tap leading to Arron’s second, the kick and follow-up for Rohan’s try… A first-class nuisance all round. Now, we should make allowance for Faf’s months out and I’m sure he’ll be back to his best soon enough. His pass to Rob for the opening try was sublime and not something I think Raffi would have done (yet).
Even so, I suspect it won’t be long before Raffi and Faf are playing out the death star scene from Episode IV.
Manu and Rohan is another tricky choice for starting, although that is more likely to be decided by Eddie Jones than Faf versus Raffi. Manu. like Faf, looked a bit out of practice, but he took his try well, ably assisted by Cam Neild.
In the five games since the defeat down at Bristol, Sale have scored 26 tries and picked up four try bonus points. Compare that with 35 tries and three bonus points in the previous 13 games (I’m not counting the Prem Cup). That’s a pretty impressive turnaround, but it will be for nothing if it doesn’t continue. Saints next week are, I believe, there for the taking – if Sale believe in themselves (should happen), don’t take Saints too lightly (ought to happen) and keep their discipline (Ah, now, hmmm…).
Keep the momentum going and we should be assured of European Cup rugby again next year. I’m not sure top four is possible, but the tightness of the table (we’re four points behind Quins, who are five places above us) means almost anything could happen.
Meanwhile, I’m off to watch (again!) Raffi skin a guy who only had half the distance to cover to get to the ball. Magic.