Posted in match reports

View from the armchair: Northampton 38 Sale 34 [GP]

Have you heard the old joke: what’s the worst thing a passenger in a car can hear the driver say? “Watch this…”

I felt a bit like that passenger when Alex was banging on about how Manu had a point to prove to Steve Borthwick. After listening during the week to all that thar fightin’ talk, I sat down to watch the game utterly convinced that we were at least going to get pinged off the park or, at worst, get a red card for someone.

“Hey, Borthwick, watch this…”


Even at halftime, the only real comfort I took from the score was that it seemed very unlikely that we’d get less than two league points out of the game. Call it fatalism, but we have a history of buggering up good halftime leads, even with fifteen. (Cumulative scores this season: first half 224–127, second half 162–168). To spend half of the second half down to thirteen was always going to put even a substantial lead in danger.

I will admit that, when Dugdale scored, I thought we might just hang on. That hope was pretty much squashed when Ashman went to the bin, though; I think I’m right in saying that Northampton scored twenty-four of their second-half points while we were two men down – twelve with Wiese off and twelve with Ashman off, plus seven from the PT that Ashman was binned for.

Ask any non-Sale fan (or, probably, most Sale fans, too) for a one-word description of Sale Sharks and they’ll probably say “physicality”, and that right royally pisses me off.

Now, don’t start getting on your high horses or chucking dummies out of the pram. I’m not averse to Sale being a physical team. There were some big, dominant tackles going in there that were seriously fun to watch.

No, what gets my goat is that “physicality” seems to be all we’re known for, and I can’t say that that’s wrong. Because, sometimes, it does seem to be all we’ve got. And the danger is that, if we keep going on about it, mentioning it in every interview, relishing it, owning it, then it starts to become an all-consuming need to be more physical, more aggressive, more on the edge. Living up to the hype…

And that leads to going over that edge into penalty after penalty, card after card. Because, at the end of the day, if all you can do is beat other teams up, then you’re missing out on half of what makes a rugby team. It’s great to have that forward dominance, and I wouldn’t give up any of our current pack, but, unless you use that “physicality” to then release the backs and do the other half of the game, you’re going to keep coming up short.

And what’s really, really galling is that this match doubled Sale’s yellow and red card count for the season. Up until now, we’ve had a brilliant disciplinary record in the league, compared with previous seasons. Start talking up “points to prove” and – bam! – thirteen games disciplinary record condensed into one.

And breathe…

Sorry, but it’s getting to me. Anyone who listened to the pre-match blatherings on BT or read the preview in The Times would have come to the conclusion that we are seen basically as the school bullies. Oh, they won’t say it directly, but the subtext is there.

I just want us to be seen as a team that has a big, dominant and – yes – bullying pack, and that has a set of silky, intelligent backs that can cut through a defence that’s just been beaten up.

And, right now, I’m not seeing that second half of the equation.

I can’t help but think that that’s three league points dropped; instead of being sixteen points clear of Gloucester, we’re twelve points above Saints. Not that I’m complaining about a twelve-point gap: you’ve got to expect that the chasing pack will be taking points off each other over the coming rounds, and twelve points is a healthy buffer, but sixteen points is three full five-point wins against three no-point defeats and still a point in hand.

I think that twelve points, plus whatever we can glean over the next six games should be enough for a home semi, but I’m a belt-and-braces type who wants every advantage we can get.

And, no, I’m not going to lay anything at the feet of the officials. Unless you subscribe to the view that the referees’ assessor rewards decisions given against those northern oiks, I don’t see the concept of “incompetent officials” as having any credibility whatsoever. No, this defeat is down to Sale’s ill-discipline, not refereeing decisions.

[UPDATE: reading back over this, I realise that it comes across as a bit strong. That’s the difference between me writing this the evening of the game and me writing it a couple of days later. The above is borne of frustration untempered by sober reflection. I’m leaving it as-is though – even though I’m probably being grossly unfair on the guys – as a sort of reference point for any future frustrating defeats.]

Anyway, 700 words in and you’re probably thinking that it would be more cheerful binge-listening to The Smiths whilst reading Sartre, so let’s look to some positives.

Cards aside, I thought the team performed well in most departments. Their only real fault was that over-eagerness that I alluded to earlier and which I won’t go into again.

Gus continues to take the most-improved-over-last-season award. His partnership with RdP has been the reason for nearly everything that’s been good about Sale’s backs play this season.

Talking of the backs: seriously, how good is Joe Carpenter? For someone who was, essentially, thrown in at the deep end on very short notice, he’s taken to it like a natural. Sam James’s mojo continues to strengthen, O’Flats is doing a great job of getting in the opposition’s faces and Arron is that close to being a proper nuisance.

In the forwards, I thought that Bev was looking much more like the player we know than the more diffident person he’s been recently. Tom Curry looked as if he’d never been away and the rest of the pack were their usual abrasive selves.

And then we got what we’d been waiting all season for – the first league appearance of George Ford in a Sale shirt. Thirty minutes is not enough to make much of a judgement, especially since seventeen of them were spent in a team of thirteen against fifteen, but it was good to see him out there and the first (of many, we hope) spiral bomb.

There was a heart-stopping moment about two minutes into his debut when it looked as if he may have done his shoulder being tackled. Fortunately, the worst he suffered was to be sporting a particularly vivid grass burn on his cheek for the rest of the game.

I think the starting 10 jersey is still Rob’s to lose, so I expect George to be on the bench against Exeter and Sarries at least. Although, that said, given that we’ll likely be without Manu for at least two games, it might make sense to start George with Rob at centre.

I just hope we approach the next game with a bit less “watch this” and a bit more “let’s do this”.

The Super-Accurate Mystic Predictor™ got the result right, but the margin was much narrower than predicted.

As for the Exeter game, it’s not looking good:

SAMP–5Exeter 25 – 18 Sale
SAMP–10Exeter 29 – 21 Sale

At worst, I think we’ll be missing Tom and Ben, possibly just Tom. Or, maybe, Borthwick will tell Tom to get another game or two under his belt before coming back into the England team.

Whatever the permutations, I genuinely think that we can get a result at Exeter, if we stop trying too hard.

…And keep fifteen men on the pitch for eighty minutes.



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