It’s a bit much when your reaction to a gritty, hard-fought win is, “the try bonus would have really helped” – it would have kept the “Boys’ Own” fantasy of sneaking a top-four finish alive, at least for another 22 hours.
It’s not the failure to somehow score four tries in a dour, gritty, game spent mostly in midfield and with neither team giving an inch that cost the dream, though. Rather, look to those missed opportunities in so many other games this season: two draws against Irish and one against Bath – all of which should arguably have been wins – and those missed game-winning kicks.
Had the fates been kinder to us in the first half of the season, we could have been coming into this with another ten league points in hand and be contemplating the difference between third and fourth place, not hoping for fifth but fearing eighth.
I would imagine that BT probably regretted choosing this match to show, rather than the try-fest going on down the M5. That’s their problem, though; despite the moaning of the commentators, there was much to be intrigued about and enjoyed in this game.
At least, I think there was. As of writing this paragraph, the full match hasn’t appeared on the Prem site, so I’m working from imperfect memory and such notes as I took at the time. (I didn’t record it because, hey, it’ll be up on PRTV by the time I get round to writing this and I can watch on the laptop rather than try to find time to watch it on the TV.)
No, it wasn’t a spectacle; far from it, this was one for the purists and, even then, purists with a stake in the game. This was the patient duel between bat and ball, not the T20 slugfest that was going on at the same time over in Bristol.
I think I’ve figured out why this report is proving a real bugger to write. It’s because, one incident aside (and we all send our very best wishes to Elliott Stooke for a speedy recovery), nothing really noteworthy happened. There’s no particular narrative for me to pin a story to, so I’m left floundering with all the same tired old phrases – too many penalties, lineout jitters, how good is Bev? and so on – and wondering how to put them together in a novel order.
Since I wrote that paragraph, the full replay has appeared online, I’ve watched most of it and, yep, nothing happened. Nearly all the “action” was in the middle 70–80 metres, with very little within 10 metres of either try line. Sale won the game by staying in touch in the first half, dominating the first 25 minutes of the second half and hanging on for grim death to full time.
This may not have been a massive crowd-pleaser of a game – as I said, more like the last day of the fifth test in a close-fought Ashes series – but there was much to appreciate here. To survive something of a siege and then mount an effective sortie before holding out in an extended rearguard action speaks volumes of the character and heart within the team.
Start with the forwards: the scrum is already an effective weapon that is only going to get better. I have no fears about the foundation of the team in this respect – the work needs to come in exploiting that forward power, something we’re sadly not very efficient doing right now. The forwards decide who wins, the backs by how much and I’m afraid that our backs are currently sucking their teeth and saying, “it’s going to be tight, squire”.
We’re losing Lood and JP from the forwards equation, but gaining Jonny Hill and – we profoundly hope – getting Josh back soon. I think that’s a net gain, even considering how good Lood has been recently. And, of course, we’re keeping the core: the twin twins, Cobus, Jonno (I assume), Akker, Ewan, Sharkey, Coenie (I assume).
And Bev. I know, I know, I’m fanboying a bit but, come on, if he’s this good now, how good is he going to be? Who could watch him making mincemeat of Alo and not be moved by the beauty of it? Next season, there are going to be tight-heads up and down the Premiership worrying about how they’re going to deal with him. I don’t think we’ve had a front-row at Sale this good since the days of Big Ted and co.
As for the backs; we’ll wait and see what next season brings. We see flashes of what might be, but there’s a component missing. I sincerely hope that it’s just the one missing bit and that bit’s named “George Ford”.
I have high hopes for the backs next season. Ford is the guy who can get the best out of the three-quarters, I’m sure, and I think Raffi could well be the perfect foil: quick pass out to maximise Ford’s options, but retaining enough threat around the fringes to keep the defence honest. I may be indulging in wishful thinking here, but I really feel that the arrival of George Ford may be the key that unlocks the potential in our backs. It won’t happen straight away, but I suspect that come Christmas (assuming no absolute buggerations like this season) we’ll see Arron and Flats and Roebuck scything through defences at will.
Ah, we can dream, can’t we?
Meanwhile, we’re in a place I wouldn’t have expected back in January: sixth, above Exeter. Blimey. It is in our hands to retain that position and have the chance at fifth. Five points against Bristol would mean that Exeter can’t catch us and could put us above Gloucester, depending on how Saracens approach their match. Personally, I doubt it: going fifth would require Gloucester to get nothing at home to Sarries. I can’t see that, frankly. Even if they don’t win, I’d bet on them getting at least one bonus point, which would need us to overcome a difference in points differences of 72 to go above them. Not happening. Staying sixth is the best we can hope for and, to ensure that, we need five points from the last game.
Whatever happens, we can’t drop below eighth, so the champions’ cup is guaranteed next season, given that no one below us is in a position to qualify as cup winners. Eighth (or even seventh), though, would be a big disappointment after the last few weeks and months.
We should be able to beat Bristol (although it’s 2–1 to them so far this season) but complacency is our enemy here. I’m hoping that the guys who are leaving are up for going out with a bang and those who are staying want to give them the best send-off they can. As long as they don’t try too hard and lose focus.
So, here we are: worse off than I hoped for last summer, but better off than I expected in the winter. Onwards and upwards.