Apparently, we haven’t started a season with five wins from five since 2004–5. I must have watched that, but I confess to having no real memory of it. Mind you, I can’t remember what I was doing last Wednesday, so there’s that…
I said a few games ago that I was suffering from a serious case of imposter syndrome, and it’s not getting any better. It’s hard to shake off the feeling that the bubble is going to burst any second, that we’re going to come up against a team that we just can’t handle and that’ll be it, back to scrapping just outside the top four again.
A visit by London Irish gave my little demon all the excuse he needed to start whispering about the threat they pose with their backline: inventive and quick, capable of demolishing a team if they get in behind you. And it’s true, Irish were and are quite capable of turning the tables: look at what happened last season – twice we raced into a commanding lead and twice they nearly pulled the victory out of the hat.
Not that they’ve enjoyed much success against us – I don’t think they’ve beaten us at home for at least ten seasons. But London Irish under Declan Kidney are not the team of before that, so I came to this game feeling that we should get the win, but with that nagging sense that a banana skin was lurking unseen.
In the event, I needn’t have worried, of course. Sale’s defence – always niggardly – is, this season, significantly tighter than even the duck’s proverbial. It’s worth rewatching the match and concentrating on how effectively Sale stifled everything that Irish tried. They gave the Irish backs no space and no time, leaving the likes of Paddy Jackson struggling to start anything. Watch the defensive line: cohesive and tight; if someone got buried in a tackle, someone else filled the gap. At times, it looked as if we had about twenty-five defenders spread across the pitch at two-metre intervals, such was the lack of gaps.
Irish’s two tries came from a Sale brain fart and a somewhat fortuitous no-look offload. Other than that, I don’t recall them posing any serious threat to the Sale line. Indeed, about the only area of the game where Irish significantly outplayed Sale was at the line-out, where they managed to disrupt our throws quite effectively (when we weren’t buggering it up all on our own). We lost five line-outs out of nineteen – that’s 25%. Not good enough and may even have cost us another couple of tries.
Of course, one of Sale’s tries came from a lucky bounce, although I’m sure Raffi will be claiming that he judged that kick to perfection. But that’s the cruellest aspect of the sport – the bounce of the ball. Had Hassell-Collins’s try just been the result of a lucky bounce, I’d say “fair enough”. No, the bit that rankles is the missed kick-off with inadequate backing up – for the second time.
There’s not really a lot to say about this game that I haven’t covered in previous reports. In their other three games, Irish scored 22, 36 and 47 points (and they put a shed load on Worcester, too, IIRC). We held them to 14 points, seven of which came, as I said, from a brain fart at the kick-off. Defences win games and Sale’s defence has been responsible for this amazing start which I still can’t quite believe.
Oh, the attack has been responsible for four try bonus points (one more try against Exeter and we’d be above Sarries on points difference) and it’s been wonderful to watch their new-found freedom and confidence. But all that attacking flair is built on the solid foundation of that duck’s-arse defence. We have the fewest points against in the league and the best points difference (one ahead of Sarries).
Before I get on to plaudits and brickbats, let’s spare a thought for Akker, a victim of one of the most dangerous, yet still legal, moves in the game – the crocodile roll. Maybe it should be punished the same as a neck roll since it poses a very real risk of serious injury. At the same time enforce the law that the jackaller’s shoulders must be above his hips, to allow for a legal, upward-moving, clearout. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve seen the jackaller put his forearms and elbows on the ground on either side of the ball to scoop it up and still be awarded the penalty. You can’t do that and keep your shoulders above your arse, plus you’re supposed to put your hands on the ball, not the ground.
Anyway, there seems to be a suggestion that Akker’s injury might not be as bad as feared, so let’s hope…
So, notable performances time and, once again, it’s pretty much everyone. And that, I feel, is the secret of this start to the season: there are no passengers in the team. Everyone is pulling their weight and, moreover, everyone is doing the job assigned to them, not getting in the way of anyone else but still able to step in if needed. Couple that with significantly improved accuracy passing and better decision-making all around and you have a smooth, well-oiled machine that is, quite frankly, running riot.
Do I really need to single out the twin twins? If one doesn’t get you, the other will. Tom or Ben, Dan or Jean-Luc, it doesn’t matter, you’re going to get turned over or forced backwards. Add Bev and Akker to the jackalling threat of Ben and Tom and is it any wonder we’re getting so many turnovers?
Jonny Hill continues to prove what an astute signing he was, even if he did mess up two restarts.
Raffi was perhaps less influential than against Leicester but was still a nuisance around the park, keeping the defence honest with the threat of a snipe around the fringes if they started to drift a bit too wide. Rob continues to play the best rugby of his time at Sale (although he does need to watch his footing kicking from the touchline in front of the east stand).
Sam Hill, after a stuttering time at the club up to now, started to look like a useful centre, doing much the same sort of work that Manu’s been doing recently (mostly, it seems, providing a distraction whilst others get on with carrying the ball). Outside him, t’other Sam continues to get his mojo back and is looking much more like the player whose absence from the England setup bemused so many Sale fans.
On the wings, I felt O’Flats had his most subdued performance so far, but Roebuck is going from strength to strength. He took his tries well, showing good anticipation for the first and strength for the second.
And then there’s Joe Carpenter. Talk about the living epitome of the concept of grasping opportunity in both hands. If the injury to Luke initially left Sale fans a bit despondent, Joe’s performances so far have left them delirious.
The Super-Accurate Mystic Predictor™ was on form this time: bang on for the points difference and within five of the actual score. So far, it’s predicted wins very accurately but has been pretty rubbish when predicting defeats. I can live with that.
The prediction for Harlequins is:
|SAMP–5||Sale 29 Quins 20|
|SAMP–10||Sale 28 Quins 21|
Let’s hope the trend continues and we can set up a major showdown for Sarries the week after. See you Sunday…