Posted in match reports

View from the armchair: London Irish 36 Sale 18 [GP]

This defeat wasn’t Cobus’s fault, let’s be clear about that. We shouldn’t have been in the position of needing that score in the first place.

For about thirty-five minutes, Sale played a fairly open game, trying to move the backs in the first few phases, rather than playing to our strengths, keeping it tight, and stifling the opposition.

And what happens? Irish score three tries. I know there was some iffy kicking in there, but I don’t think that would have particularly mattered had we played our game, not Irish’s.

When we did tighten things up and played our game, not theirs, Irish failed to score for nearly forty minutes – it took Sale going down to fourteen men to open things up enough for them to get those last two tries. Alex was being diplomatic in his post-match interview: I don’t need to be; that scoreline flattered Irish.

I don’t believe that there’s any blame to be apportioned for this defeat, certainly not to any of the players. I’m not even going to criticise the decision to play Raffi and George from the off: they need game time and it’s all very well saying “keep Gus and Rob until we’ve qualified”, but then what? Why would playing Raffi and George – lacking match time – in a semi-final be less of a risk than playing them in any other game? Playing them now still leaves us three games to recover; waiting until the semi – or the final – is putting all your eggs in one basket: if it doesn’t work, there’s no recovery.

Alternatively, we don’t play one of the best fly-halves in the country, if not the world, because, what: we don’t trust him? We’re already inking Tom Curry and Akker into the starting line-up, even though the back-ups have been doing a cracking job; but a player of the calibre of George Ford is benched? Can’t see it. I might – reluctantly – agree that Raffi may be better coming off the bench – after all, we picked up noticeably when Gus came on – but that’s more down to a relative lack of experience with dealing with these sorts of setbacks, I feel. He’ll get back to his old self soon enough.

They’ve now had a bit more game time (George might even get some more on Saturday), they have two weeks to recover and we can give Raffi and George more time against Cardiff. That means we can go down to Bristol and Gloucester with two half-backs that we know are on fire and two who’ve got some more valuable minutes under their belts on the way back from injury. Add to that the likely returns of Ben, Tom, Manu, and Akker and I’m still reasonably confident that we can force a home semi.

Yes, I might question those early tactics in this game, I might question the wisdom of emptying the bench with twenty minutes to go, I might wonder why Cobus didn’t just dive for the line, and I might wonder why we didn’t change the scrum call to a tap penalty (I think we still had enough grunt to get the try from there). But, ultimately, this result tells me that we are a nearly-there title-contending team, not yet the finished article. We might just do it – no reason other than Saracens why not – but, if we fall at the last hurdle, then we are that close to the real deal.

After sixteen years of – let’s face it – mostly mediocrity, I’ll take that.

For now.

I’ve been looking at the worst-case scenario, and we need eight points from the last three games to guarantee a home semi-final. We might get away with fewer, but I’m looking at the worst-case, here.

I started by looking at the maximum number of points each team could get individually and ranking them in order of their threat to us. Saracens are going to be top, Bath and Newcastle can’t get anywhere near us so that just leaves the rest. So, those teams and their potential final tallies, without regard to who plays whom, come out like this.

TeamFinal tallyRun-in
Leicester633H (Bri, Exe, Qui)
N’hampton631H (Sar), 2A (LI, New)
Exeter631H (Bri), 3A (Bat, Lei, LI)
Irish612H (Exe, Nor), 1A (Sar)
Bristol*612H (Sal, Glo), 2A (Lei, Exe)
Quins602H (Bat, New), 2A (Sar, Lei)
Gloucester*592H (New, Sal), 2A (Bat, Bri)

(* = play Sale during the run-in)

From there, I assumed that the team at the top won every remaining game and the teams lower down won every game that they could (i.e. they only lost to a team placed higher, and got 2 points from it).

Leicester and Northampton don’t play each other, so they end the season on 63 points, which is why we need eight to keep second place. (Of those two, Leicester have a good chance of getting there, but Northampton would need to beat Saracens at home and London Irish away, which seem less likely, but, again, I’m looking at worst case here.) Exeter lose to Leicester, taking two points, but win their others, so drop three points to end on 60.

Doing all the sums leaves the table (up to 9th) like this (assuming we beat Newcastle with 5 points)

TeamFinal tally
Sale61 (71 if we win all three)

So, we end up third. Take 3 points from Bristol and Gloucester and we’re second.

The other thing to note is that the whole season has been skewed by the demise of Wasps and Worcester. We were unlucky in that we were due to play both away in the first half and home in the second. That meant that we ended the first half of the season with a possibly inflated lead over third place, simply by virtue of having had more home games and fewer away. The second half is evening up the score. Whilst I appreciate that rejigging the second half to get rid of the two extra fallow weeks for each team couldn’t have been easy, I do think we got a bit shafted in the way our excess away games were distributed, with just one home game in the middle of six rounds. That doesn’t help the team’s momentum and it seriously undermines attempts to get bums on seats at home. Meanwhile, Leicester – who got the Wasps/Worcester draw the other way around – get a nice run-in of three home games in a row to finish the season.

I’m not panicking yet. Frustrated? Absolutely, but I think there’s enough class and desire in this team to clinch that second place and book a day out at HQ.

But, for now, take the two weeks’ rest gratefully and let’s use Cardiff as the starting point for the big push. Play Raffi and George from the start; give them game time. If it comes off, then we get another go and even more game time ahead of Bristol. If it doesn’t, then we still have some more minutes for no cost in terms of the league, and another week’s rest ahead of a big test.

A double of sorts is still on here and, if I maybe get caught up in the moments after the game and say something that I wouldn’t otherwise, I still believe we can do something this season. And, if not, then we go again next. We can only get better…



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