“We are fully capable of beating Saracens at home if we can keep fifteen men on the pitch”. You know what? We did, and we did.
From last week’s report:
Let’s assume (hope?) that the disciplinary problems of the last two games were a blip and that we will play more typically (for the season) against Sarries on Sunday. Because, if we do get our act together again, I sincerely believe that we can do the job and get the win to restore a little bit of comfort back in to the league position.
It’s not every game you get to pinpoint the exact moment when the tide turns, but there was an event in the 30th minute when Sale went from second-best to asserting increasing amounts of dominance.
For the first twenty-nine minutes, Sale looked… not exactly lacking in confidence, but rather… diffident. They looked for all the world as if the previous two matches were weighing on their minds, aware of the discipline problems that had arguably cost them two wins.
Being pinged from the kickoff was not the most auspicious of starts and it presaged a period of Saracens dominance that saw them score sixteen unanswered points: two penalties and two tries. Fortunately, Alex Goode was wearing Andy Goode’s kicking boots — we might not have recovered from being twenty points down. (And, yes, I know I’ve used a similar joke before. I’ll probably use it again: sue me.)
Even when Sale had the ball during that first half-hour, they struggled to do anything meaningful with it, either kicking with little effect or just recycling from ruck to ruck.
And then it suddenly all changed, with Sale rediscovering their ability to hit gaps, to offload and pass with precision and to make meaningful kicks that pressurise the opposition.
And it all started with a single event.
Hands up (be honest!) if you think I’m talking about Goode’s yellow card.
Nope. Back up about a minute to a bit of messy play, Saracens having just got hold of the ball after Sale were trying to push into their 22. The ball went loose on the floor and Bevan picked it up and carried it forward seven or eight metres. And that was the point that it all changed. From that carry, Sale recycled and pushed forward and played with some of that sparkle and accuracy that marked their play in the first half of the season. (Remember that? When we seemed to be throwing it around for fun and everything was sticking, rather than the somewhat turgid play since the Newcastle defeat.)
That initial sequence didn’t last long, but it set the tone for the remaining fifty minutes. Within a phase or two Sale had the ball back and were spinning it quickly from right to left. Mills popped a little cross kick over for O’Flats, who gathered and kicked on, only to be flattened by Goode stepping into him.
Goode goes off for a rest, penalty Sale, five-metre lineout, thank you very much, please don’t bugger it up.
In the reverse fixture, in a similar situation, Sale took the lineout and kept recycling it through the forwards, despite their centres, wingers and all the Sale fans in the crowd screaming at them to move it wide. This time, they did it right: Gus to Rob to O’Flats and there’s Joe with no defenders and an open try line. Seven points in the bag, still about nine minutes on the sin bin; could we do it again?
Yep. Coming up to half time, here comes O’Flats (again), carving through the defence, out to Sam J, who strolls in under the posts. Was the pass forward? Maybe. Do I care? Nope.
The binning ended up costing Saracens eleven points (two converted tries minus the penalty we stupidly gave away from the restart after the first try). A half-time score of 14–19 wasn’t ideal, but it was significantly healthier than it might have been.
We all know that half-time can open up a portal into another universe, where the following forty minutes bear no relation to the previous forty. This time, though, Sale picked up where they had left off and put the pressure back on Sarries from the off.
When O’Flats so nearly scored off of a move which, had his name been Piutau, would have seen Kay and Healey offering to bear his children, we started to believe that we really could pull this off.
It got better. On sixty minutes some, frankly, bizarre foot-juggling, grubber kicking and flopping on the ball eventually saw Rob cross-kick to that well-known speedster on the wing — <checks notes> — Jono Ross, who bulldozed his way past Goode for the bonus-point try.
The Sale fatalist in me noted that at least there was one league point they couldn’t take away from us…
When Pifeleti peeled off the back of a maul to score in the corner, bums around the stadium started to clench. Goode missed the conversion, but it was now a four-point game with fifteen minutes to go. Squeak, squeak.
Then Hislop went head-to-head with a charging Joe Carpenter and departed the field for the remaining twelve minutes plus two or three games.
Like so many teams that have had a player red-carded, Sarries came back strongly and must have felt confident when they kicked for a five-metre lineout from a late penalty. But Sale nicked it, diverting the ball into the in-goal and that well-known kicking fly-half — <checks notes> — Jono Ross hoofed it into touch near the 22.
Better, but still too close for comfort. But then, Sarries made a big mistake – the same one that Sale made in the away game at Ulster. Having already been warned about being slow to the lineout, they went into a huddle. Free kick to Sale, pressure relieved.
Sale recovered the ball in the Sarries half and looked to be trying for three minutes or so of jumper-stuffing; rarely a good idea. With time nearly up, we found ourselves ten metres out from the Saracens line. Jean-Luc picked the ball up, put his head down and charged for the line while four (five?) Saracens defenders bounced off him.
The victory secured, Saracens denied a losing bonus; the stadium erupted as 10,000 bums unclenched and fans celebrated a significant — and deserved — win.
O’Flats got the player of the match award but it could have been Joe. Or Rob, or Gus, or Sam J, or Jean-Luc, or Jono…
Or pretty much anyone, really.
A quick word about Raffi. For the thirty minutes he was on, he played a very straight scrum-half game: no darts round the ruck, nothing tricksy, just solid scrummie work. This is a good thing; it shows that he’s stopped trying to force things, to make up for lost time by trying to impress. He’s maturing
The difference between the Sale of the first thirty minutes and the Sale of the rest of the game was stark. As I said earlier, that latter team was reminiscent of the team of the first half of the season: the one that was playing open, running rugby alongside the physical, dominant tackling stuff.
By contrast, the second half of the season, so far, has seemed to me to be a bit more — I don’t know — constipated? Not as fluent and flowing as before, certainly. Until thirty minutes into this game. We need them to maintain that prior fluency for the next four games. Do that, keep the discipline of that period as well and I believe that we can record another four wins.
And that starts at London Irish next week. They’re on a bit of a roll at the moment, but I think that they are susceptible to our style of play. Without trying to be disrespectful to Irish, I would be really disappointed if we followed this win with defeat down there.
SAMP™ got it completely wrong last week by about thirteen points, thankfully.
Hoping for a return to its former accuracy, this week’s prediction is
|SAMP–5||London Irish 15 – 27 Sale|
|SAMP–10||London Irish 19 – 27 Sale|
With Saracens on their bye week, a five-point win would bring us (briefly) to within one point of them. That would be nice, even if it was only for a week.
Onward. Twickenham beckons: my bank account is already bracing itself against the purchase of a pint…
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