Blimey. That took me right back to last season: tight, brutal, nerve-wracking and playing most of the game a man (or two) down.
It also echoed last season’s refrain, “if you want to beat Sale, don’t let them go down to fourteen men”.
You’d think that, after mumbledy-mumble years supporting Sale, I’d know better: I was in my armchair watching more out of a sense of duty (and, yes, inertia) than any expectation of an evening of delight and exhilaration. After all, I had recorded the two previous games, both of which are still sitting there waiting to be deleted, unwatched. Why bother recording this one? There was a rot setting in that made hitting “record” seem like a waste of hard drive space.
(Plus, I forgot that you don’t get full match replays of Euro games online, so the insurance policy of being able to re-watch in the browser if it turned out to actually be a good game wasn’t there. Bugger. Must remember that for the quarter-final.)
Things were going OK for the first half an hour or so. A couple of decent attacks, ended, as ever, with a bit of imprecision; Akker showed some wheels in a break from defence. We even came out of Faf’s binning with parity, as Rob du Preez’s penalty cancelled out Sheedy’s.
Even better, a minute or so after Faf’s return, Lood lurched forward from a close ruck to ground the ball on the line. Ten-three up and maybe we could start to believe…
…For about two minutes.
Arron will get over it. I’m pretty sure the camaraderie of the team will bolster him, helped by the fact that we still won, even so. You can’t say “it happens to everybody”, because it doesn’t, but we are in a place where getting a red card does not imply that someone is a dirty player – it’s just a hazard of the game now. In eight games this round, five featured a red card, only two finished fifteen against fifteen and none of them was free of a card of any form.
All of which is great in hindsight but, at the time, Sharks fans’ hearts sank everywhere.
Except, importantly, on the pitch. There, hearts grew as the rest of the team refused to give in. I think we probably need to stuff and mount Mike Forshaw to make sure he doesn’t go anywhere else. I wouldn’t want us to have to come up against a defence that he’s coaching.
OK, yes, there was a wobble in the second half when Sharky was binned and holes inevitably appeared. In fact, Bristol didn’t get their second (and third) score until we were down to thirteen. So that was forty-eight minutes, twenty-five of them against fourteen men, with only three points to show for it.
Their other two tries came in the final quarter when, let’s face it, everyone must have been out on their feet.
So let’s hear it for a fantastic defensive effort all round, especially Tommy Taylor’s goal-line tackle on Uren to save a certain try (even if it was ultimately futile, since they did score about a minute later, anyway). That’s twice in two games now that Uren has had “Brizzle hero” status denied him by spectacular defensive work.
But I digress: close to half-time, seven points up. It would be nice to be able to keep that lead going into the break.
Or even extend it…
With a couple of minutes to go, Sale were awarded a kickable penalty and the great and the good in the commentary box were confidently predicting that Rob would take the kick. It’s only sensible: take the points on offer; all that sort of stuff. Jono obviously wasn’t listening, since we kicked for the five-metre line-out. I suppose that, when your backs are against the wall, the only thing to do is to gamble and gamble hard.
And in this case, it paid off. The first line-out came to nothing, but an infringement by Bristol gave Sale another chance and, this time, Akker spotted an opening and took it with aplomb. With the conversion, we now had a fourteen (thirteen overall) point lead. Happy days.
When Tom Roebuck scored twelve seconds into the second half, and Rob kicked the touchline conversion I can only describe my reaction as “stunned elation”. When a Bristol try was cancelled for a forward pass a couple of minutes later, I was thinking that maybe we could start to believe…
…And then Sharky went for a rest, we shipped fourteen points and suddenly it was back to a seven-point advantage only. Follow that with a rare defensive lapse and we’re back to parity on the night – a one-point deficit overall.
Ah well, it was nice while it lasted; it is to dream, but the writing seemed to be on the wall.
But. But, but, but…
Within a minute, we were three points up again and, soon after that, Bristol lost a player to the bin, so now it was fourteen against fourteen. For ten minutes, at least.
But what a ten minutes. Another penalty from Rob and a touchdown from Jono that could so easily have been a penalty try. Had Roebuck got a hand to it (and knocked on), or had Jono “accidentally” knocked it on, then I suspect we would have had the full seven points and Randall would have seen out the rest of the game from the sidelines. But Rob missed the difficult conversion, so we had to be content with an eleven point lead and six minutes to play: right on the edge of my “twice as many points as minutes to play” rule. Cue squeaky bum time.
Then we had Tommy’s try-saving tackle followed almost immediately by Bristol scoring in the exact same place. Two minutes to go, six points ahead. A try from Bris and we’re into extra time; add the conversion and they’re going through. This is how you get a sedentary heart rate in excess of 100 bpm.
So it was a good job that Bristol coughed the ball up after the restart and Sale were able to stuff it up the jumper for the required ninety seconds or so before kicking it out to end the match and allow the fans’ heart rates to start returning to safer levels.
So, how to summarise that?
Bev, Akker, Nic, Cobus, Lood, Jean-Luc, Jono, Dan, Faf, Rob, Manu, Sam, Arron, Tom, Luke, Ewan, Si, Coenie, JP, Tommy, Gus, Rohan, Jack, Matt, Raffi, Simon, Alex, Deacs, Forsh, Pete, Warren: take a bow and walk into the
semiquarter-final with your heads held high.
I’m getting quite emotional…