Posted in match reports

View from the south stand: Sale 29 Northampton 22 [GP]

If you want a phrase that epitomises Sale Sharks over the seasons, it would be “that was a lot closer than it should have been”, AKA “squeaky bum time”.

OK, not really squeaky bum time — it never got that close — but that growing feeling of “we could throw this away” as the final quarter progressed.

Take the final two minutes: Saints were twelve points down, so the win was beyond them, but they’d already pulled back to a realistic chance of snatching a losing bonus point and were camped close to Sale’s line. Then, to much joy, Sale turned the ball over with about 90 seconds to go.

So, time to stuff it up the jumper and run the clock down. Simples. Except that Sale have never been very good at it. The “stuffing it up” part, yeah, it’s the “jumper” bit that they struggle with. Sure enough, with the job nearly done, there’s a change in the pattern and suddenly Saints have a penalty with two seconds left. A quick tap, move it across the pitch and Collins is in to give them the losing bonus point.

And that’s the thing: it’s not that they left with a bonus point that had earlier looked unlikely nor even that, without that final score, we’d have been second, not third. No, it was more the sheer inevitability of it, that feeling that you absolutely know what’s about to happen and watching it unfold exactly as you expected.

Right, that’s got that off my chest, let’s concentrate on the positives, now.

(Quick disclaimer: I haven’t had time to watch the full replay yet, so this comes from memory and my notes. I’ll probably misremember some stuff and forget other things. I’ll do my best.)

The first half was… yeah. The first forty minutes of a new season, exacerbated by a disruptive delay to proceedings.

Overall, the first half was rusty, scrappy, only firing on three cylinders but occasionally catching in a full-throated roar.

Saints went 3–0 ahead after four minutes, during a period in which it appeared that the referee was saving his left arm for the second half. We then had about ten minutes of kick tennis before Northampton made the mistake that Sale had been waiting for. Gus fed the ball to Dan du Preez, who bullied his way through a gap in the defence before passing back to Gus to go over the line for Sale’s first try of the new season. Rob kicked the conversion and we were away.

Sort of.

The next twenty minutes was a case of figuring out if Jono was on the pitch or not. It started early, when Ben Curry needed an HIA. HIA passed, and Jono was off again, only to be back on two minutes later when Jean-Luc went off an HIA of his own. Jean-Luc returned just in time for Northampton to lose Skosan for ten minutes for a less innocent reason.

Sale failed to take much advantage of the sin-bin period, racking up just a penalty, although it did look for a moment as we’d get more when Tom Roebuck started a gorgeous move that went most of the way upfield. Unfortunately, having started it, he also finished it by fumbling the ball with the line tantalisingly close (and Flats just to his outside. If Tom had got it to him, that would have been the second, I’m sure…).

Half-time, 10–3 up. Just about deserved, I suppose.

For the second half, however, the engine had warmed up, the plugs were firing smoothly, the mix was optimal and [please, stop nowed]…

Josh replaced Poss at halftime and, by ten minutes into the half, we had a new front row with Ross, TT and Coenie replacing Simon Mac, Akker and Sharky.

Then, five minutes after that, we got the first of three deliciously worked tries in six minutes.

From a five-metre scrum, the forwards had an attempt at the score, which come up short. Coenie shovelled the ball backwards to Sam James, who shipped it on to Luke, who couldn’t believe that there was a huge gap for him to run through. Conversion kicked, 17–3.

Two minutes later, try number two started with Saints possession around half-way-ish, a counter-ruck and DdP popped the turnover ball to Ross, on to TT, across to Tom Roebuck, who skinned about three defenders before back-handing outside to Sam James, who ran round the defence for the score. 24–3 and looking quite comfortable.

Particularly when, from a line-out just inside Saints’ 22, Gus quickly shipped the ball left to find Sam James, who put in a neat grubber for Flats to collect and score the bonus-point try. Conversion missed, but 29–3 up and crooozzzziinnnn…

But then… foot off the pedal, sit back, relax? Whatever, Saints came back into it, first through Collins and then Sleightholme to bring the score back to 29–17. Still not too bad, but with eleven minutes to go it fails the “twice as many points as minutes left” test, so I’m nervously watching the clock for the next six minutes.

And so we fought to the last two minutes, a reasonable expectation of not being able to bugger it up completely, and the annoying dénouement described earlier.

So, very much a “first game of the season” sort of showing, but with the very welcome topping of a bonus point win. That doesn’t happen that often; last year we had a bum-clenchingly close win against the league’s whipping boys. Before that, we’ve won the opening game once since the 2014–15 season (funnily enough, at home to Northampton: 32–23, two years ago and, before that, beating Gloucester first up in the 2013-14 season).

You can’t make predictions for the season based on that showing, but you can note some apparent changes in tactics. There’s a difference in the kicking (not surprising – Axe commented on it in his presser this week). “Kick tennis” is an unkind term because, while it’s not very engaging for the viewer, I can understand the intent. You’re trying to destructure the game; constantly running with the ball becomes an exercise in how quickly the defence can restructure itself (answer: very, very quickly…). An exchange of kicks pulls things a bit more out of shape and it comes down pretty much to who blinks first. We saw that with Gus’s try – that came directly from a Northampton mistake at the end of a period of a “kick tennis”. Sale pounced on the mistake, recycled a few times, pulling the defence sideways and creating the gap for Dan to break through.

Also, can’t you just tell from the way those balls went up that George “spiral bomb” Ford has already had a major impact?

Some will point to the line-out problems as being a worry, to which I’ll reply that we’ve just lost JP and Lood, plus Josh is just coming back and we haven’t seen Jonny Hill yet. Yes, it improved when TT came on, but Josh was now out there, as well. It’ll improve.

Otherwise, the pack looked pretty dominant for at least sixty minutes. Simon MacIntyre looks nothing like the “makeweight” that I saw suggested at the time of his (re-)signing. He won’t displace a fit Bev but held his side up more than adequately. Line-out aside (see above), the pack seems to be carrying on from where it left off.

It was in the backs that I see the biggest change from previous seasons. Yes, it was a bit stuttery, but there was a… je ne sais quois that was different. A different swagger, a different formation, an air of willingness to do something – it felt different. I don’t know. It’s hard to pin down, but it almost felt as if there was someone new, someone with a very astute rugby brain now working alongside Deacs…

A win at Bath, even just two games in, will give me a very good feeling for the rest of this season. Even a losing bonus point would mean we’re going in the right direction.

Right, Super-Accurate Mystic Predictor™ time…

Last week’s predictions were:

SAMP–10: Sale 21 Saints 15
SAMP–5: Sale 24 Saints 13
Actual: Sale 29 Saints 22

I’m calling that as pretty bloody good.

So, next week. How are we going to do against Bath?

SAMP–10: Bath 22 Sale 16
SAMP–5: Bath 20 Sale 20

Looks like more squeaky bum time…



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