Well, that could have been worse. A lot worse. Come half-time, I was expecting a humiliation worthy of an Ashes tour.
So to come back and dominate the second half was as unexpected as it was welcome. It still left the frustration of wondering why they couldn’t do that in the first half, though. Again, slow to respond when things aren’t going to plan; not thinking on their feet and changing things up quickly when it’s apparent that the opposition have found a way to negate the defensive structure.
It’s odd that, in the last two games, the starting scrum-half has struggled and it’s been the replacement who has steadied the ship. Last week, Faf was overcooking the kicks and trying to force the pace, but Raffi came on and injected some precision and more challenging kicking. This week Raffi looked out of sorts, but along came Faf to turn it around.
For me, the significant feature of the first-half performance was that the defensive structure seemed to disintegrate – all bricks and no mortar, so to speak. Even Forsh remarked that they seemed to still be in the hotel when he spoke to the BT commentators. To strain the metaphor further, the problems in defence meant that the attack didn’t have a solid foundation to build on, so also stuttered despite starting some promising moves.
The funny thing is that I can still remember the same thing happening back in the Mallinder days: a bit rubbish in the first half, Jim gives them a rocket at half-time, a different team plays the second half. So this has been going on for twenty years or more – I’m not betting on it being fixed this season.
I’ve seen it said that we didn’t deserve the bonus point. I disagree; I think at all stages we got what we deserved. We deserved to be 19–0 down at half-time, based on the performance, but the second-half fightback earned that losing bonus point. I don’t think the good of the second half outweighed the bad of the first, so we deserved to lose the game, but to come away with nothing would have been harsh.
That said, we passed up a couple of opportunities to put points on the board in the first half by eschewing the kick at goal. Personally, I think that, early on in a game, you should take the points 90% of the time. If nothing else, it might help quell those yips that were obvious in this game after about twenty minutes with no points. That bit of panic that seems to set in, so that they try to force things: the offload that isn’t really on, running with the ball before actually getting it, the pass that’s too high or too far back — you know, the yips.
Put some points on the board, even if it’s only a couple of penalties, they’re there, they can’t be taken away, and you’re still in touch.
Faf did an awful lot to turn the tide but some of his decision making would have me tearing my hair out if there was any there to grab hold of. Imagine that GIF of Picard slowly dropping his head into his hand: that’s me at various points in any game with Faf on the field.
That blind-side snipe in midfield: what did he think he was going to achieve? And the grubber that lead to their disallowed fourth try: that was the second time he’d tried that in the space of about a minute and in both instances, he seemed to forget the minor detail that there needs to be a gap for the ball to go through. A quick aside: is Barnes slipping? That offside that ruled out Exeter’s fourth was right in front of him. I would have expected a referee of his calibre to have spotted it straight away. I suppose we’re all capable of missing things in front of our noses but it just seemed odd. (And, no, there is no “they get away with it because they’re Exeter” bollocks going on.)
My substitute-of-the-match goes to Curtis Langdon, though. The forward play seemed to go up a gear when he came on. He was in there, burrowing, sniping, being a nuisance. A major factor in the turnaround and thoroughly deserved his try at the end.
Joe Jones: why did we let him go a couple of years back? Right now, with Sharky still out, he’s a starter for me. Shored up the tighthead after Coenie went off and didn’t make any mistakes that I saw.
I’m not coming out with any astounding new truths when I say that the Gloucester game coming up is a must-win. Glos, Northampton and Wasps are our nearest rivals and they’ve all had their bye weeks, so have a game in hand over us. Glos are five points ahead, Saints and Wasps four points behind. Fail to get at least four points, preferably five, and we risk an unbridgeable gap between us and Gloucester and face the possibility of dropping two more places over the coming rounds. We play Gloucester and Sarries at home and Bath away before our bye week: it would be nice to be within a couple of points of Glos and at least six ahead of Saints and Wasps by then.
I said a while back that I didn’t expect a top-four finish this year – the first half of the season pretty much scuppered that – but we do need to finish in a European Champions Cup place (top eight, I think). That should be possible, given that four of the remaining six matches are at home. Looking at the run-in, the only team that I really fear are Saracens, but they are beatable (ask Gloucester): we’ve done it before, we can do it again.
There are six games to go: if we can’t get twenty points from those games, then we don’t deserve nice things.