And this, folks, is where the story really starts to get interesting.
One down, two to go in the season endgame. Champions’ Cup next season is in our own hands. Two more wins and it’s guaranteed, one win and it’s probable.
I’ll write about how I think the last two rounds of the league stage might pan out later but, for now, there’s a small matter of a ‘northern derby’ to discuss.
[Aside: ‘Derby’. Hah! Just because we’re both ‘northern’ and, therefore, strange and unlike other folk, games between Sale and Newcastle are billed by the pundits as ‘northern derbies’. Ignore the fact that there are at least four other Premierships clubs closer to Sale than Newcastle; because there’s this empty desert between us, we must be local rivals. Yeesh, the journalistic standards they are willing to compromise in order to get an angle or to spice up a game in their never-ending quest for more bums on sofas.]
Anyway, on to the clash between the barbarian hordes from Beyond The Wall…
When Newcastle scored their last-minute bonus-point try, I was wondering if we might be left regretting that. The bonus point for them was irrelevant to us and we already had the full five, but the reduction in points difference could come into it. We could yet rue an eight-point win that could have been fifteen points. Or maybe not, the permutations are doing my head in, so let’s concentrate on the game.
Whoever writes the scripts for these games is leaning heavily on some tired old tropes. “Early Sale pressure ends with a try for Newcastle”. It’s happened before – and we’ve recovered to win – but that doesn’t make it any less galling at the time. Five-nil down after ten minutes and we need someone to step up and regain control.
Enter Akker. His lineout throwing has improved immeasurably over the past year and a bit, so a five-metre lineout was less of a lottery than it might have been not that long ago. Anyway, target hit, maul set, ball back into Akker’s paw and there’s the reply. All square again.
Let’s have a chat about Rob for a minute. A lot is said about him being a confidence kicker; if that’s true, then he must be on industrial-strength happy pills at the moment. Since the debacle against Bath, where we missed four of six kicks (not all down to Rob, of course), he has – if my calculations are correct – now (with this game) kicked eighteen of nineteen in all competitions. That’s about 95%.
That’s all as a preamble to his superb conversion from wide right to put Sale ahead, 7–5 at the end of the first quarter.
Let’s have a chat about Faf for a minute. How can someone be so brilliant and yet so infuriating, almost simultaneously? With half an hour gone, Sale were trying to get out of their own half. The ruck was formed, the caterpillar was ready, but Faf somehow managed cock up the positioning of the ball, so decided to go for another phase by passing it to Bev. The problem was that Bev and the forwards weren’t ready for that, so we got pinged for holding on and, a couple of minutes later, Hodgson waltzed through the defence to give Falcons the lead again, 12–7.
A line out in the vicinity of the Newcastle ten-metre line didn’t seem to be a particular threat but the maul was set, the push was good and, suddenly, a raging warthog split away and powered through the Newcastle defence with only one destination in mind: the try line.
Another good conversion from Rob put Sale back in the lead with halftime near. But, with the clock about to go red, another daft penalty in an innocuous position gave the advantage back to Newcastle, who now took a one-point lead into the break.
So, there we were: half-time, everything up in the air. League position insecure, Champion’s Cup next year by no means a given, even the immediate result here in the balance. It was hard to face that, if ever the phrase “must-win” meant anything, this was it. This game, more even than the next two, was absolutely crucial. Lose, and we slip down the table with no control and too little time to recover. Win, and we remain in charge of our destiny.
When Ben bundled over for the third try less than two minutes after the restart, it felt as if a huge weight had started to lift. Still plenty of time to bugger it up, but here was a statement of intent.
Did I say “plenty of time”? Two minutes later Carreras sidestepped Faf to score in the corner. Fortunately, Hodgon missed the conversion, but now there was only one point in it and the weight started to press heavily again.
With half an hour to go, Axe rang the changes, bringing on Tom Curry to play for the club for the first time since January – twindaloo time. We now had a new front row as well, Schonert having gone off in the first half with what we hope is a minor injury, plus Hammers on for Roebuck and, interestingly, Warr on for Faf.
I couldn’t decide whether that last one was inspired, desperate or bloody stupid. Warr, I think, has the ability but he’s nowhere near the finished article. Giving him half an hour in a one-point, absolutely crucial match felt like make or break. When his first pass went too high, it seemed that Axe may have dropped a big one but Gus didn’t let it faze him and played pretty well for the rest of the game. A bit naive, perhaps, but that can be cured with experience, and experience is what he was getting now.
The substitutions seemed to reinvigorate Sale, and they started to play with a bit more purpose and a lot more fluidity. I wouldn’t have called the first fifty minutes pedestrian by any means, but they did seem a bit stodgy in comparison to the last thirty.
Where the first three tries were the result of a lot of grunt and hard work, close recycling, wearing the defence down, Hammers’ and Ewan’s came from lovely flowing moves with some sublime passing. The line Ewan cut for his try was a thing of beauty.
I should point out that Ewan’s try came while Sale were down to fourteen men (again). It really looks as if we’ve managed to regain that ability to go up a gear in adversity. I should also say that, having rewatched the game, the Rohan yellow was about the only thing I disagreed with the ref about. It looked to all the world like a rugby incident to me and, unless you’re going to give a penalty every time someone tackles without bending at the waist, it felt harsh to single out that tackle just because there was a clash of heads.
So, there we were, twelve minutes to go and fifteen points up. Not quite the required twice as many points as minutes left, but only five minutes to survive to reach that milestone.
We actually went twelve minutes. Newcastle kept pushing and got their reward with the clock just in the red. It gave them a try bonus point but nothing else.
To summarise: a tidy performance, job done, some sublime periods, some dross but, on balance, an indicator that the next two (league) games should hold no fear. In fact, cut out the inaccuracies next Sunday and we could be looking at having three (or even four) more games this season.
Mention first to Ben Curry. He was everywhere, underlining our bemusement at why he isn’t in the England team next to Tom.
Speaking of Tom, he came on at fifty minutes and just picked up as if he hadn’t been away.
As if we weren’t fortunate enough to have a pair of poachers like those two, we’ve also got Bev and Akker who are not far behind in the nicking-the-ball stakes. It’s quite embarrassing; some teams don’t have anyone who is a true jackaller – we’ve got four.
Also good to see that there was no drop in intensity or quality when the replacement front row took over. Let’s hope Sharky is OK; he was making mincemeat of their loosehead and we might need him to do the same next week in Paris.
The wings were mostly quiet, but I’m increasingly liking the look of Metcalfe. With O’Flaherty arriving over the summer, we have some serious talent and pace on the wings: something that’s been lacking for too long. Let’s hope that Raffi and Ford can unlock that potential next season. Ooh, I’ve just had a bit of a turn contemplating a back division featuring Raffi, Ford, Manu, Arron, O’Flaherty and Luke James. Mouth-watering.
So, how is it going to pan out over the next two rounds?
We’re not getting fourth place, even if it is mathematically possible, so stop torturing yourselves working out how we can get there.
Leicester, Saracens and, I suspect, Harlequins will be the top three. Quins can guarantee it by beating Gloucester at the Stoop and I think Saracens will secure second by beating Saints at home in round 25.
In the last round, Saints will probably beat Newcastle and secure fourth but I wonder if Glos will get anything out of the visit of Saracens? By that point, Sarries might not need anything, but I suspect they won’t turn down the heat at all. Gloucester could find themselves getting nowt from the last two games.
Exeter have a bye week next round and are only one point ahead of us, so we have a chance to sneak above them into sixth. They will probably beat Quins at Sandy Park on the last day, so we will need a victory against Bristol to keep that possible sixth place, and maybe even go up to fifth if Sarries beat Gloucester.
[Correction: Exeter’s bye week was this one, so they have two games left as well. They have Bristol away and Quins at home to come, so it looks as if we could have a three-way bun fight for fifth, sixth and seventh places.]
What of the two below us? Irish don’t play the last round and we’ve won more and have a better points difference, so we only need five points to keep them at bay. Wasps are one point behind us with more games won and a better points difference (33 against 32 – remember my qualms about giving up that final try and its effect on our points difference?). I can’t see them beating Leicester at Welford Road in the final round, so it comes down to the 20th of May at their place. Beat them and we eliminate both Wasps and Irish as a threat and [possibly] move up above Exeter.
I said above that this game, more than the next two, was absolutely crucial. Well, it’s gone now, done and dusted, job done. Now, it’s the Wasps game, more than the final round, that is absolutely crucial.
Win in Coventry and I think we should expect sixth, possibly fifth, place. Lose, and I think seventh is the best we can achieve.
Meanwhile, there’s a cocky Scotsman over in Paris that needs taking down a peg or two…