It’s quite difficult to watch a — let’s face it, not very meaningful — rugby match when you’re also checking your phone every 30 seconds for the latest update from the Hundred eliminator match down in Southampton.
Not that I entertained any thoughts of staying home and watching the cricket; for me, the order is rugby, cricket, everything else. So it was inevitable that I should be back in my usual place in the south stand, trying to keep an eye on the new guys (those that were playing…), seeing if there were any notable changes of tactics and watching the progress of the academy guys all whilst desperately hoping that Manchester Originals could get past the London Spirit and into the final.
(Spoiler: they did, but narrowly lost in said final to Trent Rockets.)
All of which is my way of getting my excuses in early for probably missing some vital nuances of this performance.
Aside: there’s no match report on the offy, so I ended up on Benetton’s site looking for their team details, as I only had “YC(9)”, “try(11)” and “conversion(10)” in my notes. Google translates the headline ‘Leoni Sconfitti Dai Sale Sharks Nella Prima Uscita Pre Stagionale’ as ‘Lions Defeated By The Salt Sharks In The First Pre-Season Release’. So, in France we are ‘dirty sharks’ and in Italy we are ‘salt sharks’. Good to know.
[Also, the cookie consent form on the original (Italian) page has buttons labelled ‘OK’ and ‘More’. These translate as ‘OK’ and ‘Blackberries’. Can you tell I’m padding?]
OK, the bare facts: 59–7, nine tries to one. Three for O’Flaherty and one each for Poss, Luke James, Coenie, Birch, Roebuck and Ashman. Benetton had Sam Hidalgo-Clyne yellow-carded for in at the side on a maul and scored their points through a try from Mattia Bellini and conversion from Leonardo Marin.
The half-time score was 26–7, meaning that Sale scored 33 points in the second half, indicating that they intend to continue the tradition of scoring most of their points at the far end from wherever I’m stood.
I think I’ve said before that, in the early absence of a Raffi/Ford axis, the thing that excites me most for the season is having Tom O’Flaherty out on the wing. I feel justified in that after this performance, from him scoring the first almost before we had realised that the game had started, to the way he seemed to be everywhere when he was needed. I said in my preview that I felt that Flats would take on that ‘in your face kick chaser’ role that Marland filled so well for us. This game seemed to confirm that (although I felt that we kicked a bit less than average), but with a bit of extra pace and a good nose for the line. It was interesting that, when Arran came on, he replaced Roebuck on the ‘wrong’ wing, not Flats.
[As another aside: we now have Tom Curry, Tom Roebuck, Tom Curtis and Tom O’Flaherty – not to mention Tommy Taylor. In future, I’ll probably use ‘Tom’ on its own to mean the flavour of Curry and ‘Flats’ for O’Flaherty, but we’re going to have to come up with friendly names for the Toms Roebuck and Curtis since I suspect they will feature quite heavily for at least the first half of the season. If anyone knows of ‘official’ nicknames, let me know.]
One highlight of the game was the appearance on the pitch after half-time of a certain Josh Beaumont. Oh, how good it was to see him out there and, if he didn’t exactly make a stellar contribution, then I’m not going to quibble. Being there is enough after such a long time out.
Gus Warr had a decent game at scrum half. No calamities and a lot of good, quick, accurate passes. Box kicking could have been a bit better, but not a particular issue. I’m happy to see him as a backup for Raffi and Simpson. And, speaking of Joe Simpson, definitely no qualms about him alongside Raffi contending for the 9 shirt. Totally different styles, which is what you want with your first two choices, so that you can match the player to the opposition or conditions. I’m putting Raffi slightly ahead because I think he’s got a higher ceiling (as I believe is the current phrase).
We didn’t learn much from putting Rob at fly-half. We know what he’s like there and he showed pretty much what we expect, although I will say that he seems to have an air of confidence about him in his kicking that wasn’t there before. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but his demeanour in addressing the ball seemed a tad more assured.
However, I would have preferred to see Tom Curtis given the start so that we could get a better assessment of his ability to fill in for Ford. As it was, when he did come on, he and Rob seemed to switch between the fly-half and inside centre roles like a pair of entangled quantum rugby players. Not so much the first time he came on – for Hill’s HIA – but certainly, in the second half, the two seemed to alternate. I liked that Curtis took over the kicking, though.
I can’t say that Sam Hill stood out for me but, again, here’s someone coming back from injury, so his presence out there is a good thing in its own right.
Luke James continues to look good wherever he plays. Roebuck was solid; again, without being stand-out. Wilko got a cameo near the end but not really enough to say anything about.
Apart from the reappearance of Josh, there’s not much to say about the forwards that we couldn’t have predicted from last year. No Jonny Hill yet, so the same old faces; missing a few but, hey, we move on. I’m a bit concerned that Sharky doesn’t seem to have made an appearance in the front row yet. Not listed as injured, so are they resting him or what?
Among the new signings, Simpson looks solid and Flats looks exciting. We haven’t seen Hill, J. or Woodward yet, but we know Hill’s reputation and Woodward comes with good credentials. As for George Ford – I’m still gutted inside…
Right, serious stuff starts next week; we have to buck the trend and get off to a good start. That it’s Northampton we start against makes that a bit harder, but it should be possible.
I spent a few idle hours over the summer collating all Sale’s league results for the last 10+ seasons, so this year I’m going to introduce the Super-Accurate Mystic Predictor™ for league games. OK, it’s just the average score over the past 5 and 10 seasons. I tried it privately last season and it got 19 out of 24 right (either the 10-year or the 5-year or both) and a couple of others close – at least, as far as win/defeat is concerned; not so accurate with the actual scores (although not too shabby).
Anyway, the SAMP™ prediction for Northampton at home is <drum roll>….
Sale 24 Saints 13 [5-year average]
Sale 21 Saints 15 [10-year average]
The rugby drought is over, let’s get down to the AJ Bell and celebrate.