Two points lost or two points rescued? A game thrown away or a get out of jail card played?
Or two well-matched teams battling away to an eventual result confirming that, yes, they are two well-matched teams?
The palpable sense of relief that went around the ground when Jackson missed that final kick (again!) was a testament to another game to set the heart racing – with anxiety.
Watching the game, I think I went through nearly every emotion possible, from “get on with it” to “what are you doing?” to “yes, yes, yes!!!” and culminating in “he’s going to do it, isn’t he? He is, he— what?!”
Afterwards, I wandered from my usual spot in the stand out to the bus queue in a complete daze, trying to process what had just happened. I honestly don’t know the answers to the questions I posed at the top. For once, I’m completely nonplussed.
There was a definite feel of immovable object versus irresistible force about this game. The possession/territory stats are fairly even: Sale had 46% of the possession and 54% of the territory, but it’s in the defence/attack stats that we see the difference between the teams. Sale had the edge defensively – eight scrums to two, seven turnovers to three – but Irish dominated the attacking stats with six clean breaks to one and 465 metres carried to 208.
The offence/defence split carried over to the scoring, as well. Three of Sale’s tries were scored by forwards, whereas all four Irish tries came from the backs.
The first half-hour was a very cagy affair. Sale had early dominance, but couldn’t convert it to points, then Irish came back and started to cause problems of their own for the Sale defence. Lood came to within the width of a hand of scoring but it was a pretty dour, if engrossing, affair until Rohan surged out of the defensive line, allowing Irish through the gap to open the scoring through Hepetema. The sickening crunch as Arron was forced onto the goalpost in the act of attempting a tackle was, thankfully, much worse in the hearing than in the actuality, since he recovered fairly quickly and played out the rest of the match.
Did Hepetema lead with his forearm in that collision? It looked to me as if the elbow was away from the body – a potential red card offence – but the TMO said it was OK and there was no formal review. What was not OK, in my opinion, was Hepetema’s reaction after scoring when he threw the ball at Arron, who was lying on the ground. Here I disagree with Christian Day in the commentary box, who thought there was nowt to it. I don’t think that sort of reaction is acceptable at all. It’s one thing getting up in the face of someone who’s just trodden on your fingers in a ruck but it’s quite another to take such a spiteful, petty action out on someone who, for all you know, could have just cracked a rib on the post. If a player can be penalised for patting someone on the head condescendingly, then throwing the ball at a prone opponent should also be penalised. Sorry for the rant but, as far as I’m concerned, brawls are one thing – expected, almost – but petty spitefulness should be punished.
Anyway, there was a review, but looking at possible touch in the previous phase. Then the TMO suggested looking at the actions of the Irish 7, who appeared to lead with an elbow into Jonno’s back in the ruck. What surprised me about that, once the replay had been shown and it was decided that it was summat and nowt, was that Jonno stayed on the pitch. Prior to Pearson clattering into his back, Jonno’s arm clearly made contact with the head of the Irish ball carrier. It looked accidental and there was plenty of mitigation, but I’ve seen those given in the past.
Soon after, Faf sniped near the Irish line and got illegally tripped by Stokes, who went off for a rest. Would Faf have scored? I think so. Would he have “probably” scored according to the laws? No, you can’t say that. It didn’t matter, though, as a minute later Dan du Preez forced his considerable bulk through the Irish goal-line defence for Sale’s first score. AJ missed the conversion but put over a penalty with the clock in the red to take us to half-time 8–7 up.
Soon after the restart, Irish regained the lead with a penalty goal but a Sale penalty a minute later saw Faf take off again twenty metres out from the Irish line. Much recycling and sheer bullying then resulted in Jean-Luc scoring to give Sale the lead again, 15–10.
Shortly after that, Irish took advantage of a somewhat porous defence to level things at 15-all. (Insert facepalm emoji.)
And then Cracknell went off for a ten-minute rest and, within a couple of minutes of that, Raffi was emulating Faf and sniping a quick penalty. A bit more recycling and a bit more bullying and, once again, Dan barged his way through to the line to give Sale a seven-point lead, with the conversion.
It couldn’t last: a minute later, Sam James fumbled a speculative kick-through and the other Janse van Rensburg was in to tie things up again.
Almost immediately, Sam made some amends by chasing his own kick and tapping it back to Rohan, who shipped it to Cobus who passed it on to Arron who turned on the afterburners and left scorch marks in the tramlines as he added yet another try to his tally. Five points up and the try bonus secured with twenty minutes to go.
Five tries scored in a little over fifteen minutes. Stirring stuff…
Ten minutes later, it looked like Gonzales had a free run to the try line after another bit of muddled defending. As we all watched with mounting dread, a streak of blue lightning hurtled across the field, taking out attacker and corner flag in one perfectly-executed tackle. The replay showed how incredibly tight it was, with Raffi grabbing Gonzales by the upper arm and dragging him to the ground, where he knocked on literally inches from the line. Another get out of jail card played.
The flag pole suffered severe injuries and was unable to continue.
With five minutes to go, we were starting to allow a little bit of hope in. But this is Sale and the rule is “at least twice as many points ahead as there are minutes to go”. Sure enough, a penalty gave Irish a five-metre lineout, which Lood managed to nick.
Excellent, get rid of it and relieve the pressure…
Look, I understand the thing with shifting the ball inside a bit to get a better angle and all that, but the theory behind it is predicated on not brainlessly giving away a penalty at the subsequent ruck and gifting the opposition a second chance at the five-metre lineout. Which, inevitably, they score from to level things up with the kick to come.
Fortunately, Jackson had left his kicking boots at home and he sent the conversion wide. In an eerie echo of the game at their place, Jackson then had a chance to win the match with a long-range penalty. And, as before, he missed. Still, all-square, time up, take the money and run.
But not without an attempt at running the ball back before wiser, cooler heads prevailed and booted it out to end the game.
What can I say about this that I haven’t said over and over this season? (“I’m sorry, squire, I’ve scratched your recor— I’m sorry, squire, I’ve scratched your recor— I’m sorry, squire…”†).
Stupid penalties will be the cause of Sale’s failure to reach the top four or, possibly, failure to qualify for the Euro Cup next year. At least two turnovers were lost because of a penalty given away by another player in the tackle area. A stupid penalty gave Irish a second chance at the game-tying score. With five minutes to go and having just nicked the lineout, that is unforgivable. I don’t even care that the penalty count was pretty even, or that we (again!) kept fifteen on the pitch, whilst Irish had two men binned.
There’s no point analysing it anymore, the problem is there and it’s obvious. Was this result a confirmation that the two teams were evenly matched? On the whole, I’d say “yes” although I’m sympathetic to the idea that this is one we got away with. The fact that all four of our tries were scored whilst Irish were down to fourteen suggests that we showed much less in attack than they did, given that they scored theirs against fifteen, and one of them they scored whilst down to fourteen.
We could learn a lot about slick handling in the backs from watching Irish. Their ability to shift the ball quickly and accurately, and to go from an attack down one flank to suddenly being over on the other is quite stunning. I would love to see us able to do that consistently. Listen to the commentators and we’re mostly known simply as a load of boshers. Big, physical boshers. Arron’s getting noticed, but we’re still big, bruising boshers and not much else. I’d like us to be known for a bit more than that.
And, to round off the answers to the questions at the top, yes, this was not only a fair result between two matched teams, but it was also two points rescued and it was two points dropped. Given the state of the table, and the matches coming up, those two points would have been an invaluable cushion. As it is, we really need to beat Exeter to avoid the possibility of slipping back to ninth place and making the climb much harder.
Make no mistake, those poor performances in the first half of the season have left us with an almost insurmountable task to rescue anything of note from the rest of it. Every single point is precious now and we could find an uncomfortable gap opening up come next Sunday evening.
It was a fascinating game for the neutral and one that we might have lost a couple of months ago, but we really needed to win it, and I’m afraid I can’t get enthused about the result. As good as it feels to be scoring tries and getting try bonus points, I can’t help but feel a bit flat after drawing that game, no matter how much Irish are a form team at the moment.
But, oh, that tackle…
† Bonus Nectar points for anyone who gets the reference.