I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that someone, somewhere in the bowels of Premiership Rugby, has an inkling of what is happening regarding the league tables and qualification for the semi-finals. I’m pretty sure that nobody else has the faintest clue.
Losing Wasps and Worcester from the main competition is easy to cope with: everyone plays everyone else, so you just scrub any results involving those two that have already been played and, eventually, everyone catches up.
It’s not as easy when you have a competition split into three leagues, with cross-league fixtures involving those two clubs. Because only some of the teams will be affected by the loss of them, you end up with an asymmetric situation: some will have played their full complement, some will have played one fewer and there may even be a couple who lose out on two games, once all rounds have been completed.
So, what do you do? If you give a walkover to sides that haven’t yet played them, then teams who’ve already played (and possibly lost) will be aggrieved. If you give a walkover to every team that should have played them, then you’ve given them an advantage over teams that didn’t.
As I write this, the Premiership app shows one pool match left to play: Exeter v Gloucester. Both of these teams are in pool 1; the table for that pool shows Glos and Brizz having played three games each, Exeter have played one and Bath two. So the final pool table will have one team on four games, one on three and two on two. Fair?
Meanwhile, the same app shows Leicester as having played two games, despite there being three results listed for them in the fixtures tabs. If somebody has thought about how to put things on a fair standing, they’re keeping the details to themselves.
(As an aside: the Premiership website says that Leicester have played four games, and they also still include Wasps and Worcester in the tables. So not only do they not seem to be too arsed about the competition, but they also need to get someone with a clue into their back-end data store.)
Anyway, the game.
At the time I would have described it as forty minutes of some men running around a field followed by forty minutes of rugby. Having now watched the full match replay, though, that still seems a pretty accurate summation.
Sale started the brighter, but Quins scored first, with Arran pushing out of the defensive line too early and allowing the attacker in behind him for a score wide right. Five minutes gone, five-nil down; not an auspicious start.
Ten minutes later, Rouban Birch showed good awareness to quickly tap a free kick five metres out and score unopposed, whilst Quins were still reeling from being monstered in the scrum again. With the conversion, we were now seven-five up, and that’s how it stayed until half-time.
Not that there weren’t a few moments of excitement during the half – it’s just that, overall, it wasn’t enough to distract us from talking about other things. The Sale scrum was absolutely demolishing the Quins one, so that was good. The line-out was misfiring big time, though – not so good.
Overall, the first half looked like a game between two teams of mostly young, inexperienced players who hadn’t spent much time playing together. Funny, that.
The second half provided us with some proper rugby, most of it coming from Sale: five tries to two in that half tells its own story. Bev and Joe replaced Ross and James at prop, so there was no let-up for the Quins’ front row on that score. Add to that a frustrated Bev determined to take it out on someone and you had the makings of a few fireworks.
Sale’s intent was obvious two minutes into the second half as the detritus of a collapsed maul slowly cleared away to reveal Poss clutching the ball on the line. Conversion kicked, and we were off.
Well, sort of. Five minutes later, Arran again jumped the gun and left a gap for Cawday to steam through for Quins’ second score.
Back to a two-point gap, but that was to be Quins’ last real threat to the Sale line until five minutes from time.
Between those two events, Sale scored three more tries: a second for Rouban after Bev got on the end of a chip over the defence and went that close to scoring; Ethan Caine somehow burrowed through a pile of bodies to secure the try bonus point and Kieran Wilkinson showed a fine burst of speed to break through a flailing defence to give Sale a twenty-one point lead with seven minutes to go.
A series of penalties given away by Sale (No! Surely not) saw Quins mount a concerted attack on the line, culminating in a lofted crosskick chased into the end zone by both full-backs. A mid-air waltz between the two ended with Anderson, the Quins full back, landing on his head but clutching the ball to his chest to score the try. He had to go off for an HIA, but his efforts had given his team a slim hope of two bonus points if they could just get another converted try.
It was not to be, though, as Wilkinson again, with the clock at zero, ran through a hole in the defence to score Sale’s sixth. The last action of the game was a cracking conversion from Curtis to restore the twenty-one-point gap.
It seems odd to me that someone would buy a season ticket — which includes entry to these games that allow you to watch and assess the upcoming first-team stars of the future — and say, “meh”. The crowd was a bit bigger than I anticipated but still disappointing considering what was on offer.
So, let’s talk about what was special about the Prem Cup: the fringe players. Yes, when Bev and Joe and Joe came on, they made a big difference. But that was because they’ve got the experience to come in and boss a game. We know what they can do; I want to talk about the other guys out there because they’re the ones we’ll be cheering on five years from now.
Let’s start with Rouban Birch: Player of the match, two tries and was involved in just about anything that was good on the pitch. If he keeps this up, I can see him getting at least a bench place by the end of the season. It’s just a pity that there are at most only two more Prem Cup games (for certain values of ‘two’) for him to show off.
Wilko was a bit of a revelation for the twenty minutes we saw him. To be frank, some of his previous outings have been somewhat underwhelming, but here he showed a bit of nous as well as a turn of speed that we had somehow not noticed before. It may be late coming, but is he now starting to realise that obvious potential we knew he had?
Nye Thomas looked like exactly what he is: a young, talented, raw, player who only really lacks experience. He’s got a useful turn of pace and a decent, crisp pass. We are now blessed with three – three! – young scrum halves. Joe Simpson is going to have to settle for the role of mentor, rather than first-team regular, I fear.
Tom Curtis and Elliot Gourlay had good, solid games. Tom kicked five out of six, including a couple of tricky ones, so there’s some future continuity when George retires (he says before the guy’s even played for us).
I fear that Arran may miss out if he doesn’t stiffen up his defensive capabilities. We all know what he can do in attack, but he jumped the gun twice here, resulting in tries that we really should have kept out. It’s where Roebuck has the edge on him. Work harder, Arran, we want to see you flying down the wing on match day.
I’ve not seen Ethan Caine before, but I was quietly impressed. The line-out was iffy, but that’s not always the fault of the hooker, especially with a nearly-scratch side. He held his own in the scrum alongside James Harper, ably abetted by the wise old head of Ross Harrison.
We also saw a couple of the shiny new, ink-only-just-dry, signings: Ryan Mills and Reiketi Ma’asi-White. Mills is a known quantity, but it was interesting to see Ma’asi-White given twenty-five minutes. He didn’t get much opportunity to show off, but looked good when he did have the ball and, if his reaction to Wilko’s second try is any indicator, he has fully bought into being at this club.
There may or may not be another game in the pool stage. We may or may not have qualified for the semi-finals. There may or may not be anyone with a clue organising the competition, but I would urge anyone who couldn’t be arsed coming to this one to shift their bums and get down there next time.
Now we return to the Premiership for one game (and one cancelled game) before setting off on this season’s European jaunt. I mentioned it before, but to repeat, the SAMP predictions are:
|SAMP–5||Sale 31 Bristol 14|
|SAMP–10||Sale 31 Bristol 14|
So, at least it’s consistent. I’ll take that as a score.