Five penalties? Five? In the whole match? Who is this team and what have they done with Sale Sharks?
To be fair, that may not even have been the oddest thing about this game. What I found—and still find—most perplexing is Ulster’s complete capitulation after about ten minutes of relatively even back-and-forth.
They spent the first five minutes of the game in Sale’s half and I was thinking, “OK, game on…”. But then Sale got a bit of possession and, over the next five minutes, began to assert the authority that they would not relinquish for the next seventy minutes.
Ulster did have a brief foray up to the Sale line late in the second half, but that was the exception and it soon fizzled out in the face of Sale’s impenetrable defence.
Apart from that aberration, Ulster spent the majority of the match doing a good impression of Cnut trying to hold back the tide†. Look, I don’t want to appear to be harsh or mocking—I am genuinely shocked at how little opposition they put up—but “rabbits in headlights” is about the aptest metaphor I can come up with.
To be fair to Ulster, they did not blame the travel disruptions they encountered for their performance – unlike the majority of pundits who seemed to seize on that as an explanation, rather than give credit to an almost perfect Sale performance. Well, up to the point where they were pretty much forced to concede that, yes, actually, all things considered, that was a bit good.
So let’s talk about how good Sale were.
I think the flip side of my shock/perplexity over the Ulster performance is that Sale managed to bamboozle them so effectively without apparently exerting any effort. It was clear at the time – and even more so watching it back – that much of what Sale were doing just flowed. No panic, no forcing the issue; just effective work, changing smoothly where necessary. The machine, like much of the crowd, was well-oiled.
Take TC’s try to open the scoring: Manu takes it up to the line, Gus gives on to Rob, who pops a back-of-the-hand thing of beauty to Arron, cutting a lovely line through the defence. Then, just as Ulster are about to recover, a pass to TC, who takes it the rest of the way, forcing the touchdown despite the best efforts of the defender to hold him up. I’ll bet Deaks’s heart was bursting with pride.
Five minutes later, Gus was channelling Danny Care as he took a quick tap penalty with the Ulster defence sleeping. In a just universe, Gus would have got the score but, in this universe, he was stopped just short and it was left up to Big Dan to muscle over for the score.
That the half-time score was only 15–0 was more down to Ulster not quite having crumbled fully than to a lack of effort on Sale’s part. A more lenient referee might (just, possibly) have awarded Akker’s almost-try.
I’ve commented many times in the past about the way Sale often fall off in the second half, especially following a dominant first half. Not so here. If anything, they went up a gear from the outset, giving Ulster no room or time to recover their composure. And so it was that, barely ten minutes into the half, Rob attempted an over-the-top pass to Arron on the wing. The ball bounced off the defender’s hand right into Rob’s path. The score was almost a formality from there. To be fair, if the ball hadn’t hit the hand, Arron would have scored anyway, so no blame to the defender.
If Tom Curry’s try came direct from the training field, Tom Curtis’s bonus-point score came direct from kindergarten: five-metre scrum, pass, pass, hot knife, butter…
It was so simple, so… silly that we were fully expecting the referee to pull it back for some sort of infringement. But no, all fine, try stands, let’s move on.
Try five came from a complete Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot moment. A cracking move from halfway involving a steaming run from Cobus ended with the ball going into touch. A chance for Ulster to regain possession and clear their you would think. But no – punch-drunk or brain fart, whatever, they decided that this was the right time to hoick a quick throw-in way infield. The thrower (Lowry, I think) neglected to notify everyone else of his intention resulting in a loose ball and open try line that Byron was never going to spurn.
Try six sort of bookended the match, being a sublime example of a flowing movement from an uninspiring position. From a scrum on their own ten-metre line, Sale sent the ball initially to the right then quickly back left in a classic series of outside passes, culminating in Arron’s simple touchdown. Honestly, like the first try, it could have come from a training video
And then, a few minutes later, a simple knock-on and it was all over. A comprehensive victory in a match that everybody expected to be tight and that leaves Sale top of pool B on points difference.
I suppose I have to address the incident.
I did have my argument laid out, but events have overtaken me as I see that Warwick has now been cited for the tackle that broke Manu’s face (not his jaw, fortunately, although we wait to see if he can play against Toulouse).
I don’t often disagree with the referee—let me rephrase: after the game, and following due reflection, I don’t often disagree with the referee. During the game, of course, he’s a clueless idiot who doesn’t understand the laws.
In this case, I didn’t change my opinion following due reflection: I still think he got it entirely wrong. Perhaps he was correct within the laws; if so, I would say that the laws need revising
Now I’ve heard the arguments about it being a passive/legal tackle and blah, blah, blah, and my response is “so what?”. Passive or not, legal or not, he made contact with the head with sufficient force to lay out a guy the size of Manu and, it seems, force his teeth through his lip.
Yes, it was deemed a “legal tackle”. I don’t see that: OK, his legs were bent, but his body was upright. Maybe his arms were in a “wrapping position”; again, so what? His body position was such that head contact was much more likely, whatever his arms were doing. The angle of the spine relative to the ground should be the only consideration. Horizontal: OK, vertical: not OK.
If the world rugby authorities want to eliminate head contact then something like that has to have consequences, whether dominant or passive, legal or foul. What is at stake here is the long-term future of everyone who plays a brutal game. We can’t legislate against broken bones or knackered cruciates, but we can do everything we can to minimise head trauma. The onus has to be on the tackler to take all precautions to avoid head contact. Maybe we have to ban the upright tackle completely. I hope not, but at least it has to be accepted that, if you go into a tackle with your back upright, you run the risk of a severe sanction if it goes wrong, with no regard to intent or otherwise being legal.
Player of the match: pin the team sheet up and chuck a dart at it. Bev got it, but it could have been Gus, maybe it should have been Rob. Everyone’s a winner!
Toulouse away next. I’m hoping that we can build on this win and provide the major shock of round 2. I’m not going to bet on it, though. I suspect that this is going to be one of those typical Euro weekends: a great time spent with good friends, spoiled by a bit of rugby in the middle.
Whatever happens, I’m going to enjoy it. It’s been nearly three years since I was last in France, and over a decade since I was last in Toulouse. Good food, good wine and good craic, whatever happens on Sunday.
But we live in hope…
† Yes, I know Cnut was proving to his advisors that he couldn’t do it, but allow some poetic licence, eh?