In response to the Newcastle debacle, I suggested that we “move on and use the disappointment (and, I hope, anger) to rebound decisively against Leicester”. Well, in the words of that eminent swamp philosopher, “That’ll do, Donkey. That’ll do.”
I suspect that I’m among the majority in saying that, prior to kick-off, I was seriously nervous about this match – a feeling that had been somewhat amplified by the time we were ten minutes in.
It was about then that Leicester had been camped in the Sale 22 for some time, with Sale giving away pens like it was Maundy Thursday or something. Four times Leicester kicked to the corner and four times Sale repelled them – twice legally. So, if we were a little concerned that Tigers had so much of the possession and territory, it was ameliorated slightly by Sale’s defensive work.
The fourth maul was ended by Jonny Hill forcing his way through the middle like an icebreaker through an Arctic floe and a penalty from the resulting scrum finally gave Sale the chance to relieve the pressure.
Oddly, that period of Leicester dominance worked in Sale’s favour: when we were awarded a kickable penalty after fifteen minutes, it was already apparent that this was likely to be a tight game and that every point would count. So, unlike Leicester previously, Sale took the three points on offer rather than risk getting nothing attempting the try (a decision heartily approved of by the South Stand Association of Sages, Pundits and Assorted Rugby Luminaries).
Twice more over the next fifteen minutes, Rob kicked the points, giving Sale a 9–0 lead after half an hour.
And – strange thing – over that fifteen-minute period you could visibly see Sale’s confidence growing. An offload here, a passing move there, and everywhere dominant, bone-crunching tackles did what had failed so spectacularly up in the North-East: they turned the tide.
On thirty-four minutes, the growing riptide finally pitched Leicester under the waves [have you been on the new year happy juice? – Ed] as a gorgeous pass from James, S to Reed triggered a backs’ move of balletic perfection to send O’Flats over the line for the first try of the game.
Sale should have had another score on the stroke of half-time but Arron completely flubbed a precision grubber from Sam James (again). No excuse: he should have scored that – a full-length dive would have been better than dropping beside it and trying to touch it down. Even if the ball was short of the line, momentum would have taken him over in possession. Stop trying to get pretty touchdowns and just get the job done.
So, there we were, sixteen-nil at half-time and looking good… Hang on, where had we heard something similar before? We have – as I mentioned again last week – a track record of dominating the first half and then not being able to respond when the opposition changes their tactics at half-time.
Things looked a bit ominous five minutes into the second half when Pollard intercepted a pass from RdP to run fifty metres for the score. Fortunately, the covering player at the back (yep, Sam J again) forced him to touch down wide out left. When the “kicking machine” then spaffed the conversion way wide, the chorus of “how wide do you want the posts?” from the choir was particularly heartfelt and jubilant.
The effort of running that far seemed to take it out of Pollard (memories of Seabass at Parc des Princes scoring a similar 50-metre try and standing on the goal line, hands on thighs, coughing his guts up) and he was replaced a few minutes later by… <checks notes> Ben Youngs. By this point, Leicester had already replaced a centre (Porter) with a wing (Ashton) and a wing (Watson) with a fly-half (Burns), so it seemed only natural that they would replace a fly-half with a scrum-half. No wonder that, from that point on, they went completely to pieces – especially as Burns later went off and had to be replaced by a hooker.
The remaining thirty-five minutes were ones of pure Sale dominance. It would possibly be churlish of me to point out that fourteen minutes elapsed between Sale’s second try of the game, scored from a distance of at least half a metre by SiMac, and their third (a penalty try after Sale showed Leicester how the maul was supposed to go). Or that the bonus point try only came after nine minutes of the yellow card following the penalty try.
On the other hand, it behoves me to point out that that BP try by Ashman came from Sale giving Leicester another lesson in how to maul. I never thought I’d get to say that – that any team would give Leicester lessons in mauling – but here it happened twice, not to mention the lessons in maul defence early in the game. Leicester being taught how to maul: there may be a glitch in the matrix; stand by in case we need to turn it off and back on again.
So, there we were, 35–5 up with a couple of minutes to go. Job done, go home happy, and look toward Quins next week. But the scriptwriters had a final twist to give us before the end: Tom (?) Curry made a break down the left touchline before sending a speculative pass infield to a waiting Joe Simpson. The pass went to ground, but Leicester coughed it up again and this time Joe was there to spin a pass out to RdP for the fifth try.
I doubt there was a dry eye in the house as Rob handed the ball to Joe to kick the conversion and not a single person wasn’t disappointed to see it drift wide. Memories flooded back of Jason Robinson bowing out similarly. A fitting end to a game, a year and a career. Go well, Joe.
The SAMP™ prediction had us down for a 28–23 victory, so the final 35-point margin suggests that there has, indeed, been a glitch somewhere. Normal service may well be resumed sometime in the future (but not too soon, eh?)
I know that coaches and DoRs will always deny it, but the injury disruptions that Leicester suffered must have contributed to the size of Sale’s victory. To play much of the game with a scrum-half at 10 and a hooker in the centres is not conducive to good attack or defence.
That said, let’s not allow Leicester’s misfortunes to detract from a seriously good Sale performance. From defending four mauls to wresting control of the game back to exerting total dominance, this was a masterful performance and reminiscent of the early games of this season, before Saracens away. If this genuinely heralds a return of that Sale, then I think we are fully capable of overcoming the home/away imbalance in this half of the season.
Sam James was given the Player of the Match award – deservedly – but it could have easily gone to almost everyone who went out there. The Curry twins were absolutely immense: they’ve gone from “too similar to be on the same team” to “perfect complements of each other” in just a few seasons. Has Eddie Jones’s inexplicable ignoring of Ben worked in our favour? Had they both been picked for England, would they still be too similar to play in the same team?
What can you say about Simon MacIntyre? He has more than responded to those who viewed his (re)signing with jaundiced eyes; anyone who gets the better of Dan Cole is worth his place in a team. Then we have Cobus getting through the work at a phenomenal rate, Jonny Hill turning on the class when it’s needed, Jean-Luc (along with Dan) is just Seabass reincarnate, and Akker and Sharky again getting through an immense amount of work.
After eleven games, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Gus and Rob have formed a double-act at half-back as smoothly efficient as Morecambe and Wise in their prime. Raffi and George are going to have to work to get into this team. There’s also going to be a ding-dong battle for full-back when Joe Carpenter is fit again; O’Flats has nailed himself to the team sheet and Arron just needs to work off some of the naivety from his play.
But I want to talk about Manu.
Ever since Dimes persuaded him to swap the Midlands for the North-West there has been debate and discussion about whether or not we use him properly and even if he represents value for money. I’d like to share a thought that occurred to me whilst watching the match unfold and which is entirely subjective and not based on any research or checking, other than a feeling gained from watching this season’s games.
As the second quarter went on, and Sale started to show the confidence to throw the ball around, I was thinking about what made the difference between this free, confident back line and the constipated, clunky pedestrians of, for example, the Newcastle game; and I think it’s the presence of Manu that does it: whether we give him the ball or not, his physical presence seems to warp the defence in front of him, giving that bit more space and time to the playmakers to use their skills.
As I say, totally unscientific and I’m not going to check just in case I’m completely wrong and there’s no correlation. I don’t know: there’s just something about that permanent, beaming grin that has to be infectious and inspire everyone around him.
Don’t disabuse me of my comforting theory.
With Saints doing us a huge favour in keeping Quins off our heels, it’s now vital that we take this performance through to next week’s trip to The Stoop, not only to open up an even bigger gap between us and third place but also as revenge for round seven. If the memory of that game doesn’t push them to greater heights, then nothing will.
SAMP™ predictions are:
|SAMP–5||Harlequins 25 Sale 20|
|SAMP–10||Harlequins 27 Sale 19|
Let’s prove it wrong again, eh?