I nearly didn’t watch this one. At least, I nearly didn’t watch it live; I was going to hold off and wait for the result to see if I was going to bother. Then I had a look at what BT was offering up as entertainment, bought my PRTV pass, and settled down for what I was expecting to be a painful couple of hours.
O, ye of little faith…
Not that it started off very hopefully, though. The first ten minutes were mostly one-way traffic toward the Sale line, with Leicester taking the lead through a Burns penalty before Sale started to come back into the game a bit. And, talking of penalties, how much of Leicester’s early dominance came from Sale gifting them possession and territory through silly transgressions? Again.
But then, ten minutes in, a period of concerted Sale pressure ended with Tom Roebuck slipping through the Leicester defence like a wet haddock. Rob, strangely for this season, missed the conversion but here we were, having soaked up a fair bit of pressure and yet ahead in the game.
Of course, five minutes later, we’d given them the initiative back through more silly penalties and some slightly wayward kicking from Gus. One point behind, then four points behind and then, on the half-hour, Wiese (Jasper, unfortunately, not Cobus) powered through a pile of bodies to ground the ball next to the left-hand corner flag. (It looked like a double movement to me but, hey, what do I know?)
Burns annoyingly nailed the conversion and now we were eleven points in arrears and it was looking as if the inevitable was likely.
It’s a strange old game, though, and it turned out that that was the last time that afternoon that Leicester would trouble the scorers. Sale, on the other hand…
Seemingly stung by shipping thirteen points in short order, Sale pushed forward again, winning a scrum on the Leicester 22. An absolutely filthy, inch-perfect, through-the-legs pass by Gus – under pressure from Wiggy – hit Rob square in the breadbasket. With O’Flats on his outside a shoo-in to score, he threw a dummy and headed back inside. At this point, I’m screaming “why didn’t you pass?” because there were two defenders bearing down on him and still about seven or eight metres to the try line.
But he skipped through the first tackle and the second arrived just too late to stop him from diving over for the score. All forgiven, but don’t do that too often, Rob, my heart won’t take it. The conversion brought it back to a four-point deficit, and that’s how we went into half-time.
I was going to make some tortured analogy with cubic zirconia versus diamond here, but I decided that it was not only strained but grossly unfair on Gus, who has played out of his skin for the bulk of three and a half games. But let’s not kid ourselves, when Raffi came on for the second half, there was a step change in… something at the breakdown. There is an air that Gus hasn’t quite got yet; it’ll come, it’s just not there, but Raffi has it in bucketfuls.
I’m not sure that Gus would have made that snipe against the grain of a defence going the wrong way and then got the perfect offload to Tom for a simple, 22-metre run-in. I’m not sure that Gus would have been lazily wandering back from challenging the kick that Carpenter then brilliantly returned and so be in a position to take the outside pass and run in for the bonus point score.
I don’t want this to sound as if I’m taking anything away from Gus, I’m not. He’s come a long way from where he was last season, but Raffi’s just that bit further down the road, and that’s probably down to his England experience – after all, look at the difference between Tom and Ben: being with England has given Tom an “air” that Ben doesn’t quite have.
Personally, I think we’re lucky to have two exceptional, young scrum halves on the books.
And then, interestingly, we defended a ten-point lead for twenty minutes without it ever really getting near squeaky bum time. The defence was that good.
So, plaudits. Everyone. Seriously, every man Jack of them who put a foot on that pitch, stand up and take a bow. And to the coaches: I don’t know what you’ve changed this year, but keep it going.
Carpenter seems to have settled in, plumped up the cushion and got his feet up on the pouffe at fullback. His mazy run for Raffi’s try was a joy, but he’s also doing the important stuff well. Woodward may have a hard time getting a look in.
Since Sale seem to have eased back on the du Preez battering ram approach all the time, the forwards now seem to be lasting better and are more able to cope with closing the game out. I have been concerned in the past that we’ve been asking too much of them, big and beefy as they are, to keep bashing and bashing for eighty minutes. Now we seem to be using the backs more effectively, and the forwards are now free to be more effective themselves: no more forcing the issue, trying the miracle offload because there’s a huge wall in front of you – do the job, do it well.
Whisper it softly: I think Faf leaving might have been in the best interests of the club. Don’t get me wrong – Faf arriving was one of the best things to happen to the club but now it’s time to move on and go back to a more traditional 9/10 axis, one that is already reaping benefits in a more fluid backline, offering more threat across the field.
I mentioned last week that one of the differences that has struck me is how much they are mixing it up through the phases: a forward carry, then a spin out wide before coming back across the field and a switch to the inside line. Look at Tom’s try: quick passing from the touchline ruck gets the Leicester defence scrambling to their right. That leaves a gap, which Raffi exploits to devastating effect. Raffi isn’t Faf – neither is Gus – and that’s a good thing: now Rob has the chance to show his chops because we have scrummies who are willing to ship the ball on quickly.
Similarly for Sam James – he’s coming back into form because the new attacking structures are giving him that bit more space and, perversely, less time. For someone like Sam, I think he needs to respond instinctively. Give him options and he’ll slow down a bit; take that away and he shines.
We now have a genuine chance to go six from six in the league heading into a showdown with Sarries. I mean, we’ve always had the possibility of going six from six (there’s always the possibility at the outset of winning every game), but now there’s a legitimately high probability of going six from six. That’s not to get blasé or anything, but we should be able to beat Irish and Quins at home. No way are those two foregone conclusions but, playing the way we are, they should hold no fears other than a complacent attitude.
The idea that the game at Sarries could be between the last two unbeaten teams makes me so glad I decided to go to it.
But… but, but, but. Got to get past Irish and Quins first.
Sale are continuing their annoying habit of making the Super-Accurate Mystic Predictor™ look silly. Last week, it predicted a 5- to 8-point defeat for Sale when what we got was a 10-point victory.
Let’s hope that SAMP has got its mojo back this week because its prediction for Irish is
SAMP–10: Sale 32 Irish 10
SAMP–5: Sale 33 Irish 10
Onward and upward…