Must win? Absolutely. Just win? Of course; this is Sale we’re talking about…
It’s amazing how quickly things can go from “about to go comfortably ahead” to “aargh! Squeaky bum time”. Faf, we love you, but I suspect you may be the principal cause of premature ageing amongst Sale fans.
For me, this was definitely a case of gifting Gloucester two points that we could ill-afford to give away. On the face of it, it looks like a close-run battle between two in-form teams, neighbours in the table, with home advantage having the final say.
Gloucester’s tries came from Sale’s indiscipline in the wrong place and a typical Faffism. Two tries mauled over the line and one from the chaos caused by a dominant maul was really their only scoring threat. At no time did I get the sense that they would score from open play – no feel that Sale’s defence was ever likely to be breached by a slick backs move – whereas there was always the anticipation that, if we could get a man through, all hell could break loose.
And it so nearly did: early in the second half, when Luke James skinned a defender to break 30–40 metres upfield. That move faltered, but the momentum it set up led directly to Jean-Luc’s bonus-point try. (Should J-L’s nickname now be “Inspector Gadget” following Christian Day’s comment about his “go-go-gadget arm”?)
Add to that Ben’s run in the first half, which faltered because he passed inside to AJ, who was pointing to his outside, where Roebuck (?) had a clear run to the line.
Look at the stats: five clean breaks to one, 27 defenders beaten to eight, twelve offloads to two. A bit more discipline, a bit more accuracy and clear-headedness and I could see that being a six-try to two victory, not a four-all game won by a single conversion.
Not that those stats mean particularly much – Irish had by far the better of those same measures a couple of weeks ago, but couldn’t force a win.
But it remains a worry that we’re not turning on-field dominance into the sort of scoreboard dominance that wins leagues. In only five games this season have Sale given away fewer penalties than the opposition.
Ah, go read the other reports, I’m not going to say it all again. Discipline, accuracy, blah, blah, blah…
You know Faf’s had a cracking game when he’s had a brain fart of volcanic proportions at some point. That’s the thing with Faf: when he’s playing well, he oozes confidence and when he’s confident he tries things. The more confident, the more ambitious, until…
Yeah, Gloucester’s third try was one of those Faf things. But that’s what you get as payment for everything he did the rest of the time: control the game, put people in space, score himself, put in a huge defensive shift, all that stuff that Faf does. If he didn’t have a brain fart every now and then, he’d be perfect and would be sublimated into heaven.
It would have been nice if he’d made the pass in midfield somewhere, though, rather than right on their line. That way the drop from expectation to despair wouldn’t have been quite so huge. But, yeah, I’m more disappointed at giving up the other tries (especially the fourth) than that one.
We’ve known for ages that Arran has gas to spare and, just recently, he’s shown a remarkable level of skill chasing and claiming high balls. But I saw something in this game that I hadn’t noticed before: he’s strong. On a few occasions, I was watching him carry the ball, dragging at least two tacklers with him for some distance. This lad looks as if he could plough a one-acre field. Get his signature on a long contract now.
It was good to see the reappearance of Sam Hill after his injury. I thought he put in a good shift as well. For his first season or so, he looked a bit anonymous, although that could be a function of not much game time since he rapidly ended up playing third fiddle to Manu and Rohan. He didn’t quite set this game alight, but he put himself about and did what needed to be done. For a first game back, that’s actually quite impressive.
Rob’s stint at outside centre seems to have had a good effect on him. When he had to take over from AJ at fly-half, he seemed much more confident than we’d seen previously at that position. Maybe the continuous game time has boosted his confidence somewhat.
And it looks as if he may need to carry on there – that injury didn’t look good. I remember remarking, when AJ got up and tried to carry on, that we’d see if he was still on the pitch after ten minutes. We can but hope that it’s something that he can recover quickly from.
We’re currently in seventh place and I really doubt that we’ll go any higher than that. Although the table is really tight between us and fourth, with the exception of Saracens – and they are too far ahead for it to be relevant – all our remaining games are against teams below us. And even then, only one of them (Wasps) has a realistic chance of catching up.
So, we are reliant on teams above us dropping points in order to move up the table. Let’s look at some scenarios. Starting from the unrealistic proposition that we win all our remaining games, what other games might help us move up the table?
Round 21: Irish v Saints would either give us a march on Irish or give a buffer ahead of Saints. Exeter could drop points at home to Leicester.
Round 22: Irish v Harlequins could help us catch up on Irish.
Round 23: This is our bye week and the one where we could lose ground if we haven’t performed well enough against Bath and Sarries. Quins and Exeter might drop points against Leicester and Sarries respectively.
Round 24: I can only see Saints v Quins as game that could potentially give us a boost.
Round 25: Saints away at Saracens could see them lose ground in the chase and Gloucester away to Quins might give us a chance to catch up.
Round 26: Saracens visiting Gloucester could be beneficial to us, and Exeter v Quins might also help, depending on where those two are relative to us at that stage.
I think we should expect to retain Champions Cup qualification, but I suspect that, miracles aside, top four will have to wait for next year.