Posted in match reports

View from the south stand: Sale 42 Bristol 19 [GP]

’Cause it’s a bitter-sweet symphony, that’s life…

Now that I’ve inserted that ostinato ear-worm into your head for the rest of the day, let’s talk about a bitter-sweet afternoon for Sale fans.

Aside: it’s bloody typical, isn’t it, that the one time that I remember to pick up my RefLink on the way out is the game that the system breaks. And now, as I’m sitting here writing this, someone’s drunk my tea. The universe hates me…

Although Bristol had nothing to play for at all – they were in the peculiar situation that, no matter what happened, they’d end up tenth – I remained a little concerned that this wasn’t going to be the nailed-on five-pointer that league positions might suggest. Seeing that they’d left out several heavyweights from their starting XV assuaged some of my fears but… this is Sale we’re talking about.

It was fairly obvious from the start that Bristolian hearts weren’t really into it. When Tom Roebuck flattened Toby Fricker for the first try and Akker brushed Dan Thomas aside for the second, it was clear that Bristol were already halfway to an Ibizan beach.

And, let’s be clear, by the time the warthog had triggered his 3.0 seismic event, Sale had already asserted their dominance in pretty much every area of the game. Bev and Sharky were making mincemeat of their front row, and Bristol looked rattled at lineout time, with several promising attacks fizzling out off of an iffy throw or catch.

The forward dominance was nowhere more evident than just after the twenty-minute mark, when Sale’s big buggers just rolled forward in a series of brutal rucks, culminating in Cobus triggering seismometers in the area for the second time in ten minutes. Twenty-five minutes in, 21–0 up; surely we had sixth place guaranteed.

Ah, but that old demon never truly shuts up, does he?

Even when Cobus breezed through an open defence on the stroke of halftime for his second and Sale’s fourth, I couldn’t help but remember that we’d been here before this season and nearly blew it. Halftime is always problematic in games where Sale are on top in the first half. As I think I’ve mentioned before, the oppo use the break to regroup and re-think, while we just carry on with what worked before.

And – to an extent – that’s what happened. Certainly, Bristol looked a lot more up for it after the break and were rewarded ten minutes later with a well-worked try by Fricker wide out on the left. Sheedy kicked the difficult conversion and things were looking up for them.

If Faf had tried to employ Billy Whizz’s scriptwriter, then he must have been busy. On 55 minutes, all in the crowd were celebrating the perfect crowning moment of Faf’s 100th game as he burst through the defence to catch a beautifully weighted kick over the top and to run in unopposed under the sticks.

But. But, but, but: there must have been a typo in the script as he was adjudged to be offside from the kick and the score was scrubbed. It was made doubly annoying as he’d also been denied a couple of interception tries due to not being able to hang on to the ball and knocking it forward.

On 60 minutes, Faf was taken off and we gave a standing ovation to arguably the best scrum-half Sale have ever had – and we’ve had some great ones. The Faf has gone; long live the Raff.

But we still had a quarter of a game to play, and Bristol were thinking that they could – possibly – pull this one out of the bag.

That hope was pretty much quashed a few minutes later as Big Dan high-stepped his way to the line – dragging half of Bristol with him – to score Sale’s fifth try.

Five or six minutes later, Arran collected a loose clearance kick and set off on a mazy run, pausing only to kick ahead to himself and then skin the defence to hammer the final nail into the coffin of Bristol’s hopes of getting something from this game. With ten minutes to go, they weren’t coming back from 42–7 down. Thirty-five is more than twice ten, so I was pretty confident that Sale could survive to full time.

Not that Bristol didn’t strive valiantly. Two late tries from Nathan Hughes would have restored a bit of their pride but the gap was simply too large and ultimately they went away with nothing.

And so the season ended for nine teams. Two more will end their season next week, leaving the final two to play one last game (which I’m going to – woo-hoo!).

I don’t know if it’s Bristol’s early lethargy or an end-of-term ebullience from Sale, but this was one of their better performances. Perhaps because it was a bit special they felt the need – or put themselves in the right frame of mind – to play with a lot more top-two-inches than I’ve seen in many a game.

Lood gave us a display of what might have been, had he not been absent for so much of his stint with us. For me, he was the driving force of the pack. The big twins may have the carrying power, and the no’-as-big-as-the-big-twins-but-awfa-big-for-a’-that twins may be a right pair of nuisances around the breakdown, but Lood was in there, carrying, stealing, tackling and even making fifty-metre breaks down the centre. A definite case of ‘if only…’.

I want to highlight Cobus as well. I thought he had one of his best games and not just because of his two tries. He did a great job, getting stuck in when necessary, and being available when that was more appropriate. I suspect he will play an important part next season

As for the rest of the pack, we need to light a candle in thanks that the big twins aren’t among those departing. In Dan and Jean-Luc, I think we have two of the most destructive forces in the Premiership. Bev, Akker and Sharky are turning into a front row to be feared, more than ably backed up by the replacements, and the Currys are, of course, the Currys.

Rohan showed again why he’s going to be sorely missed. Another whose injury record mitigates against going into the pantheon of the greats, but a special player who brought a frisson of excitement whenever he got the ball.

Hammers played as he has so often played: solid and dependable at the back, a cover that the three-quarters can rely on. Sam continues to frustrate by showing flashes of the old brilliance without really being convincing over the whole game. Rob continues to go from strength to strength after his move to 13 and now, back at 10, that growth has continued. I’ve had much to say about Tom and Arran in the past; they lived up to all that and more in this game. The future’s bright…

The subs kept the standards up when they came on. I thought Wilko looked assured and I just hope he can start to blossom under Ford (I suspect that Rob’s future is at 13). Gus will make a decent understudy to Raffi, I think. After a shaky start, he’s starting to look as if he’s got a bit more confidence in himself.

And then there’s Faf. What can I say about Faf? I’m not going to apologise for singling him out for special consideration: he has, for me, been the standout signing of the past twenty years, second only to Robbo in my mind, and he takes his place alongside Jason, Charlie, Seabass and all the others resident at the top of Mount Salympus.

Perversely, I thought he had one of his best games since his return from injury, despite – or maybe because of – playing a fairly standard scrum-half’s game. No pushing things, no miracle passes, just get on with the job and do that thing of getting in the opposition’s faces. His standing ovation was richly deserved for everything he’s given us over the last five years. From forgotten man to world cup-winning scrum-half, we’ve shared his journey and, although we’ll sorely miss him, we wish him nothing but the best for the future and thanks for the memories and the legacy.

As for us, we’re left to look back on a season that could so easily have been a disaster but which, ultimately, ended on a high. We can also reflect on the players leaving the club: those that we got the chance to cheer on their way – Faf, Lood, Rohan, Hammers – and those whose departure happened off-pitch – AJ, Cam, Curtis, JP.

But we can also now look forward to what is yet to come and the new faces joining us for another attempt at the heights of the Premiership title: Jonny Hill, Tom O’Flaherty and George Ford. An era is over, a new era begins…



Photographer and science geek. Rugby fan (Sale Sharks).