I will admit that, before the game started, there was a bit of me that was thinking, “please don’t let it be a slaughter”.
Yes, I know: not a good supporter thought: where’s the positivity? In my defence, there was another part of me that definitely would not have been surprised if we’d won. I said earlier in the season that we’re the sort of team that could beat Leicester and lose to Bath. We did beat Leicester and tried really hard to lose to Bath, so a win in the La Defense Arena was not completely ridiculous.
I said after the Saracens game, “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.”
The gloss turned out to be a quarter-final tie in a unique stadium (ok, not really a stadium: it’s an arena that can be used for rugby. In fact, Racing have to play their “home” semi against La Rochelle in Lens because La Defense is booked for a concert.)
You can’t deny that, for all the talent in Sale’s squad, Racing are really a level above. When you can boast the likes of Machenaud and Vakatawa on the bench and still field a starting fifteen including Russell, Thomas, Fickou and Lauret, you’re talking serious firepower. Add in an environment unlike pretty much anything you’ve played before and a plastic surface that you’ve not had the best of results on and I think the pessimist part of my brain can feel somewhat justified.
On the other hand, the halftime score had the optimist part of me looking sideways at the pessimist bit and grinning…
I have a bit of an issue with the way Sale play, which goes back beyond Alex taking over. On too many occasions, we will have a – to varying extents – dominant first half and get the upper hand. What then happens is that the opposition use half-time to revise their tactics to deal with our style of play but we carry on doing the same thing and lose the initiative in the second half. Depending on the extent to which we pressed the advantage, we could hang on for the win or go on to lose heroically.
Just once I’d like to see the opposition come out for the second half, all smug with their new tactics, only to fall foul of us having changed as well. I think what I’m saying is that I’m getting a bit fed up with the number of times the word “physicality” appears in interviews compared to, say, “pace” or “guile”.
And so it went with this game: in the first half, Sale overwhelmed Racing, stifling their running game, so much so that they only managed two penalty goals and posed very little threat to the Sale try line. Unfortunately, for all their defensive brilliance, Sale suffered some all-too-familiar yips in attack. Wayward lineouts, a failure to convert try-line pressure and general imprecision meant that we approached half-time down by six points to three.
But then Manu picked up a fumbled pass and sauntered through a gaping hole in Racing’s defence to score under the posts. Rob converted and suddenly we were going into the break with a 10–6 lead – one that was not undeserved.
But then, in the second half, Racing started to move the ball more rapidly to the wings. And so it was that Racing struck back within a couple of minutes of the restart following a Russell kick to the wing and a bit of Thomas magic on the touchline. A cracking touchline conversion and we were back to three points down again.
And we never recovered. Another penalty was followed by a flukey try as Russell followed up a speculative kick forward and collected a brutally cruel bounce that fell into his arms.
Akker pulled one back, but two more penalties and an Imhoff try put them pretty much out of sight – Ben’s late try was never going to be enough and the last-minute try from Spring just added insult to injury.
Despite my little moan up above, I thought that this was a pretty decent performance in a game in which they were always going to be the underdogs. The determination to keep fighting was commendable and, if some players out there were arguably punching above their weights, they’ve had a good lesson that they will come out all the stronger from.
I don’t think Racing were nineteen points better than Sale. Take away Russell’s fluke and consider that the penalty count was ten apiece but Racing kicked five of theirs to Sale’s one and there’s less disparity there than might at first appear.
Right now, Sale remind me of a well-tuned V12 engine with dodgy electrics: every now and then you get a glimpse of the purring powerhouse, but it keeps sputtering out and sometimes has difficulty starting. We’re a new wiring loom short of beating everyone— OK, I’ll stop the tortured analogies now.
So, to the awarding of kudos. A big kudo* to Bev (again) – he just continues to grow in stature with every passing game. I awarded him Player of the Season back around January time and I haven’t changed my mind in the interim.
Sharkey is cementing his starter status; I’m just a bit concerned that he seems to get injured early in the game, meaning that Coenie or Jonesy have to play for longer than they might have expected.
Akker is just… Akker. He seemed to have taken a backward step on the chucking in this week, but his presence on the pitch is really comforting. And to have Ewan come on to replace him is just so satisfying. You wouldn’t really mind which of them started, you know you’ve got consistency throughout the game.
Speaking of consistency throughout the game, we also have Tom and Ben to spell each other, or to take over from Jonno with no loss of intensity. It’s actually good to see Jonno coming off after fifty or so minutes. We have relied on him so much the last few years, but he really does need to have the load of expectation taken off him for his health’s sake. And Ben is shaping up to be a great captain-in-waiting.
In the backs, I thought Luke had a quiet game – or, at least, not as effective as he has been recently. AJ looked like someone who’s just coming back after a serious knee injury. That he didn’t take any kicks suggested that maybe his return was a week too soon, since they obviously didn’t want to put extra shock on the knee.
Manu came through the whole game smiling (as ever) and Faf put in a typical Faf performance: brilliant and infuriating in equal measure.
No, I’m not going to comment on the cliché in the room. I don’t know enough about the rules and regulations around TMO reviews in the various competitions to make any sort of informed criticism of events. I will say, though, that I do not think that the hit on Dan, at least, would have gone unreviewed in the Premiership, whatever the decision made afterwards.
Anyway, as they say, we can concentrate on the Premiership and the last two, all-important, games. If Wasps lose their Challenge cup semi-final, then eighth place will be good enough for Champions Cup next season. I still think we have to go all out to win both games, though and get as high a position as we can. We’re at the sharp end and we need all those departing to do their best to leave us on an upward trajectory.
* That is how it works, isn’t it? One kudo, many kudos…