Posted in match reports

View from the south stand: Sale 13 Harlequins 29 [GP]

See? I told you. I told you. What did I say last week? “It’s really 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.”

OK, let me be clear: I’m not suggesting that we’re about to revert to type and start falling down the table. But this game shows what can happen when the focus that was so evident in the first five games gets lost.

I haven’t watched the replay, and I don’t intend to – I’ll do a lot for you people, but there are limits to my masochism – so this will be based purely on my memory of events tempered by a bit of time to reflect.

Whilst we’re clarifying things, let me also say that, if you’re expecting me to say anything about the referee, you might as well stop reading. As I believe I’ve said before, it’s one thing to question the ref’s visual acuity and even parentage during the game – this is correct and normal behaviour for a supporter – once it’s over, though, you recognise that he is a professional doing a job. No referee is biased or incompetent and he almost certainly knows the laws better than you or I do. I’ll lay odds that, if the SSSC ever did another referee night and we pulled up all the “dubious” decisions from this game, they would be able to show the rationale behind each one.

But after that, what is there really to say about this game other than “they got it badly wrong”? You don’t enter into a kicking contest against a team that contains Marcus Smith (unless your team contains George Ford). You most certainly do not keep giving away kickable penalties against a team containing Marcus Smith.

I think that what we saw here was our forward bullies getting bullied by their bullies. We’re not used to that and went into panic mode, trying to force the issue again and making less-than-ideal decisions.

One of the things that struck me about the play this season was how few unforced errors Sale had been making. But here, we saw knock-ons, wayward passes, players tripping over the ball and the reappearance of silly penalties at the breakdown.

I’ve tried the “if you’d have offered me twenty-four points from six games at the start of the season, I’d have bitten your hand off” as a way of feeling better about this defeat, but it doesn’t really work. The premise behind the hypothetical is the 2021–22 team and their performances, but my expectations of this game were based on the 2022–23 team and their start to the season. Two very different things. There’s no getting away from it: this is a game that this team should have won and they blew it.

Bad day at the office? I hope so. The gold plating rubbing off and revealing the brass underneath? I don’t think so. I think this was a blip and is not a representative performance by this season’s team. I think they will take this as a spur and I expect to see more first-five-games-type performances than not over the rest of the season.

And they can start next week at the StoneX. I was hoping that that game would be a “two unbeaten teams enter, only one can leave” affair but it looks as if it’s going to be a “levelling up the table” dogfight. I don’t expect it, but it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if Sale beat Sarries on Sunday. It’s certainly become more of a lottery with all the internationals missing.

That this game was being showcased on ITV set me thinking about how rugby can better entice the casual observer – or, rather, what might it be that puts them off?

I don’t think it’s “excitement” that stops people from watching: football has many, many dreadfully tedious games, yet it still seems quite popular. But then, football is a relatively simple game to understand. No, I think the laws of rugby (or their application) are too finicky. Warning: I may be about to seriously tick off some purists…

Imagine you’re at your first game. You know that you don’t know the laws and that many things will pass you by, but you anticipate picking things up as you go. You see what you discover is called a “ruck” form and the guy you are told is the “scrum half” picks up the ball and passes it, starting an attack.

Except that the ref blows up, calls it back and gives a scrum to the other team. Huh? What you didn’t see was the ball catch on someone’s leg and fall an inch to the ground before the scrum-half picked it up again. Seriously? We stop the game and embark on five minutes of scrum resetting for a tiny blip that had no measurable effect on play?

Thankfully, this season they seem to have stopped those interminable TMO checks where we spend five minutes trying to determine if the ball brushed a fingertip as it flew past a player but there are still, in my opinion, too many places where we stop the game for no sensible reason other than a fastidious application of the laws in situations where there was no material effect on the game.

And this, I think, puts the casual viewer off. “Why did they stop the game just for that?” I use my missus as a benchmark for this: she has no real interest in any sports but will occasionally watch a game I’ve got on the telly. One of her most frequent comments is, “oh, just give him the try and get on with it”. And I think there’s merit in that: let the trivial go by; if it’s not clear fairly quickly, go with the initial decision; TMO watches a full-speed replay in the background and only if it’s obvious from that does he then notify the referee, otherwise carry on.

Any minor “injustices” will even themselves out, if not over a game, then certainly over the season. And an advantage is that a game with fewer stoppages means that players get a bit more tired towards the end and so we set up for more exciting final ten minutes of matches.

Anyway, that’s just some partly-formed thoughts that I thought I’d throw out there. I’m sure that they would need a lot of refinement before being taken seriously but I do think that we have to address the complexity of the laws if we really want to attract a larger audience on a regular basis.

Super-Accurate(?) Mystic Predictor™ time again.

Quite frankly, it needs to go and hang its head in shame this week. It’s as far out as it was for the Bath game but in the wrong direction.

For Sarries: not looking good…

SAMP–5Saracens 33 Sale 17
SAMP–10Saracens 33 Sale 16

I’m going to this one. Here’s hoping…



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