Revenge is a dish best served cold, wet and muddy.
It’s odd, isn’t it? Sale’s current league record is: played 12, won 9, lost 3. We’re twelve points clear of Quins and Gloucester, we’ve done the double on Leicester and beaten Bath at the Rec with fourteen (or fewer) men for most of the match. We have the meanest defence in the league, with the fewest points against and the fewest tries against. Only one team has taken a try bonus point from us.
And yet, those three defeats still rankle. Two of them because we were in a position to win but either failed to take advantage or just gave it away. Also, they were both on artificial pitches, which we know the players hate. It’s the other one that really gets me, though; the one at home, the one where we basically said “here, have four league points. No, no, we don’t need any for ourselves”.
The one against Quins.
And that’s probably why I would rank this as the most satisfying win so far this season.
We don’t have a very good record there (one win in the last seven visits, I believe), which is why SAMP™ had us getting thumped by about eight points. So a sixteen-point turnaround over the predicted score, whilst not making up for a thirty-point turnaround the wrong way at home, at least keeps the current momentum going.
Also, I just like beating Quins.
I enjoy beating them because we frequently have good, open, clean games against them (case in point: penalty count for this game was 9–8 and no cards), rather than attritional slugfests. Also, I’ve had a bit of a soft spot for them ever since they didn’t cry off when a blizzard swept across Edgeley Park, unlike a certain other team who ordered pizza because of a puddle on the touchline.
The match started a bit like the one the week before, with Quins piling on the pressure for the opening ten minutes or so and taking a three-point lead in the process. But then Sale clawed the initiative back and started applying pressure of their own; pressure that lasted pretty much the remaining seventy minutes.
Losing Tom Curry was a real blow, given how effective he and Ben had been in tandem against Leicester. Also, you just don’t want to lose a player of that calibre at all. The injury did give a sixty-five-minute runout for the new, improved, more mellow Jono, who now seems able to manage the bulk of a match without getting up the referee’s nose.
Watching those first ten minutes was different to the Tigers’ game in one respect, though. With Leicester, there was a genuine feeling that they could get the score they wanted and that Sale’s defence of the line over that period came as a relief. But this time, I had less of a sense of worry: there just didn’t seem to be the same level of threat. Defending the line seemed a bit easier than before.
Thus, the turning of the tide seemed more of a natural progression of the game than a concerted effort to grab it by the scruff and force it around.
Seventeen minutes in and we got the move that, in my opinion, sealed Sale’s dominance in the game. From a lineout on the left, Gus shipped it off to SamJ. It then went via Arron and Luke, who slipped neatly through a gap in the defence, and on to O’Flats, who body-surfed his way over the line.
Five minutes later Manu punched another hole in the defence to get within a couple of metres of the line. A few rucks after that, Quins were able to pounce on a loose ball, only for Ben Curry to latch on to it like a terrier after a grounded ferret and haul it free. Then SamJ (again) pushed a cute little grubber into the in-goal for RdP to aquaplane in for the grounding.
By half-time, the score was 14–6 to Sale and we were looking comfortable and in control.
Newcastle or Leicester?
When Marchant picked up a loose ball off a convenient bounce two minutes into the half to give Harlequins their first try, it was tempting to think back two weeks rather than one. But this time, there was no panic in the ranks, no desperate scrambling to recover the initiative; just calmness and intent to get on with the job, play their game and let the game come back to them.
And so, ten minutes later, Akker flopped over the line as a maul split in two. Eight-point gap restored, three tries scored, half an hour to go: could we allow ourselves to consider a five-point win?
Yep. Just past the hour, Cobus somehow managed to ground the ball on the line, simultaneously giving Sale the bonus point and sparing Danny Care a ten-minute rest for his deliberate knock-on in the build-up.
It might have been better if Cobus had spilt the ball or come up short as that would have almost certainly seen a penalty try (and two extra points) and Care might not have been around to make the break that led to David’s consolation score for Quins. But that’s quibbling: it would only have changed our respective points differences and, with a now twelve-point gap in our league positions, I doubt that points difference is going to come into it at the end of the season.
Famous last words…
Ben Curry got the player of the match award but, again, it could have been almost anyone. O’Flats scored a try and carried seven times for 64 metres, twice as far as the next best, Jean-Luc, who made 32 metres off nine carries; Sam James for his outstanding vision and decisive thinking; Akker for his try and for not missing a lineout throw…
My point is that we are now increasingly seeing a team performance out there, where the very concept of “player of the match” is almost meaningless. After two years, we’re seeing Sanderson’s Sale, not Dimes’s Sale-as-modified-slightly-by-Sanderson, and it is good, very good. He seems to have picked up a thing or two from his time at Saracens.
I wasn’t going to mention it but I suppose I do need to say something about ‘the incident’. I don’t want to get embroiled in the press’s constant need to manufacture extreme controversy out of anything they can spin. Nor do I wish to descend into the fetid mire that is that section of social media that struggles to hold two separate concepts in their minds simultaneously. I will just refer back to my comments a while ago about the angle of the tackler’s back and note that Manu’s back was more or less horizontal at the point of impact. Had Allen not (unexpectedly) been on his knees, the tackle would have hit at about hip height, which I would suggest is exactly what the rugby authorities want to see.
It was very pleasing to see that Allen appeared to have suffered no ill effects afterwards, but I think Barnes got the call exactly right.
We go into the HCC break with a healthy twelve-point gap between us and third/fourth place. That’s twelve points; a dozen; ten plus another two; three wins ahead. Second place is ours for the taking.
Happy with that.
I’d also like to think that these last two games have given the team the confidence (but not the arrogance) to take on Toulouse and to believe that they are beatable. Not to be over-awed by the international talent that they’ll bring, but to know that we are capable of closing them down, denying them their game and imposing our own. It will be an incredibly difficult task, but I think this Sale team are capable of beating Toulouse, especially if it’s chucking it down on Saturday.
Onwards and upwards…