To be honest, that’s about what I expected. I mean, I hoped for a Leicester-esque performance, but I expected a tight defeat. (I feared a tonking, but let’s skip over that.)
It’s getting more and more difficult to write these reports, as I feel as if I’m just saying the same thing over and over again.
- Penalties. They are killing us every single time.
- Lack of precision. Knock-ons; grubbers for no reason; kicks that are too long or too short; passes going astray.
- Panicking when we inevitably hand the initiative over to the opposition (usually by giving away a stupid penalty) – trying too hard to make things happen.
Add fourteen points to every Sale score this season to account for butchered chances and where does that put us? Not perched precariously in sixth and staring at ninth, certainly. Of the nine games we’ve lost this season, seven were by less than fourteen points and one was a technical defeat (Newcastle away).
With the drawn games that’s around thirty points potentially lost through an inability to convert visits to the 22. Call it fifteen points dropped – that still puts us next to Sarries in the table (above them, really, because we’d have won both games).
[That’s not intended to be a criticism by the way, more a reflection on what might have been had we not been forced into fielding inexperienced players for so long at the start. The kids did their best and they will get better but, right now, more first-choice options early on would have seen us in a much better place.]
I said about halfway through the season that I felt that, even then, top four was out of reach. Although the points difference was small, I felt that we wouldn’t be able to make ground quickly enough. I would say that, if you’re lucky, over the course of several weeks, you might expect to make up one point per round on teams three to four places above you. If you’re lucky. It’s no good saying “we’re less than two wins away from top four”. You have to ask whether there’s time to close that gap at one point per round. So a seven- or eight-point gap could take two months to bridge – if you’re lucky.
The thing is, it’s all very well aiming high – and even at the halfway point, top four was mathematically possible – but your aim has to be realistic. To suggest that top four is still the target when you’re lying tenth with half the season gone may be motivating but, if it’s not realistic, then later performances may suffer as anxiety creeps in because you can see the goal slipping away. Whereas a realistic goal – champions’ cup at least and as high a position as possible to achieve that – should produce less anxiety, more polished performances, and – who knows? – maybe even that top-four place.
I also said back then that I thought there were two achievable aims that would get us something out of this season: retain a place in the champions’ cup and give the youth a really good blooding. I still think those are good aims and well within our grasp.
We’re sixth and likely to drop to seventh (as I write this) when Premiership Rugby award the four points to Gloucester for their cancelled game against Worcester. Then it becomes a bit squeaky bum time as the two teams below us – London Irish and Wasps – could both go above us after our bye week, leaving us ninth. Fortunately, we will then have a game in hand over Irish, who don’t play the final round, and the best Wasps can do is go one point ahead.
With regard to Sale’s bye week, on the plus side Irish are away at Newcastle, so not guaranteed a win but, on the downside, Wasps are at home to Worcester. Unless Dimes spreads some magic dust that week, I can see us being eighth after our bye round.
And then it’s up to us. We have the chance to overtake Wasps if we can put in a good performance at their place, and the two home games – Newcastle and Bristol – should (please!) bring in eight or nine points.
So, yeah, champions’ cup next year should be a realistic target. The seeding will be awful, but that’s the price you pay for buggering up the first half of the season.
The other aim is to get the younger players as much meaningful experience as possible in preparation for hitting the ground running next season. The more game time we can give to Raffi, Arron and so on, the better. If it is true that Faf is off, then I’m afraid we have to be brutal and say “thanks, but Raffi’s number one, now”. I’m not doing Faf down in saying that – anyone who’s read these screeds knows how much I rate him – but it’s more important now that we get Raffi absolutely ready to form an effective partnership with George Ford from day one. Those two will, I think, be crucial to whether Sale are able to build on this season and last and really push for top honours.
It’s quite mouth-watering imagining what a back contingent of Manu, SamJ/SamH/Doherty, O’Flaherty, Reed and LukeJ could do if Raffi and Ford get the synergy that I think they are capable of early on.
As you’ve probably noticed, I’m at the stage of wishing my life away by thinking more of next season than the remnants of this. I haven’t written this season off, particularly, it’s just that my expectations are not what they were this time last year. That’s because we were badly hit by absences for so long at the start: no one’s fault – it happens – but it did seriously dent any thought of building on the momentum of last season.
Talking of realistic ambitions, as I was earlier, we do, of course, have one more realistic goal to go for this season: progress in the champions’ cup. Of course, winning it would be the gold-plated, Christmas-and-birthday-rolled-into-one, I’ve-died-and-gone-to-heaven perfect end that negates everything I’ve said for the past few months.
We can dream, of course, but, frankly, getting past Bristol and into the quarters would be a major achievement. From there, it’s one game at a time and other clichés. Beat Bristol over the next two legs and anything else is a gloss on the season that looked light-years away in October.
So, dream big, hope big, expect realistically. Sixth in the league and a European quarter-final would be a good return, for me, given what’s gone before. Anything else will be absolutely bloody marvellous.
Expectations for next season, though…