Posted in match reports

View from the Arms Park: Cardiff 28 Sale 27 [EPRC]

One point. One —ing point.

It was that close … and, once again, it shouldn’t have been. A fifteen-minute period around half-time, during which the defence seemed to switch off or lose focus or something, gifted Cardiff fifteen points. Sale pulled back fourteen of them, but it was too much in the end.

Not that we played particularly well in the first half – the scrum got absolutely monstered for much of it – but we were holding on, resisting, getting back into it.

When Akker went over on the quarter hour, it looked as if we were starting to assert some dominance. But then, Ford’s over-ambitious penalty kick missed touch, giving Cardiff the ball and, after a few rounds of kick tennis, they had scored a try of their own to go into a 10–7 lead.

Still, we held on. Despite Sale looking a bit rusty, the two teams seemed fairly evenly matched (scrum aside), and George’s penalty after half an hour to level the scores emphasised that. We were in for a tight, nip-and-tuck battle, it seemed.

But then it all went wrong as a series of missed tackles eventually saw Adams score an unconverted try, and then several scrum penalties near the Sale line ended with Adams scoring his second and with Sharkey sent to the bin. Twelve points shipped in ten minutes: things weren’t looking promising.

And it got worse immediately after the break, with a scrum to Cardiff well into Sale’s half. With Schonert off, we had to bring Coenie on, the only question being who was to be sacrificed?

Now, I’m no rugby tactician, so I may be missing something here but, if you’ve lost a prop to the bin because your scrum is being mullered, then I would have thought that taking off a forward (Jono) and going for a seven-man defensive scrum in prime penalty range wasn’t a particularly great idea.

Inevitably, the scrum went to pieces, the referee awarded the penalty, Priestland rubbed his hands in glee and proceeded to put Cardiff fifteen points ahead.

And then we got it together. Over the remaining thirty-seven minutes, Cardiff managed one more penalty against two converted tries and a penalty from Sale. But a net fourteen points couldn’t quite overcome the fifteen-point deficit.

Even then, we had chances. A concerted attack late on, Manu gets the ball but he’s a bit isolated. He gets tackled, someone comes in over-eagerly, off-feet, penalty to Cardiff, pressure relieved.

Even without going for the try, many of us stood on the north terrace were screaming “drop goal!“, but it didn’t seem to occur to anyone on the pitch. One point down, just a few minutes left, we could have had it…

Were Cardiff, as some have suggested, more up for it than we were? I don’t think so: I didn’t see any lack of commitment out there – a loss of focus, maybe, but they gave it their all. Certainly, Cardiff were on an emotional high after the pre-match tribute to Peter Thomas – someone who clearly means a lot to the club, since an entire stand is named after him. But no, I don’t think that tipped the balance; this was just another game in a worrying sequence that has seen us succumb badly during the standard ebb and flow of a game.

It’s not even that we’ve been giving away too many penalties (although that is a factor), it’s that too many have come at exactly the wrong time. Giving away a penalty when you’re under the cosh is one thing, but giving them away when you are the cosh is unconscionable.

I’m not convinced about having George and Rob on the field at the same time. Sorting out how to fit three players into two positions is way above my pay grade, but I don’t think the current solution is working. It seems harsh to bench Rob after the way he’s played for the bulk of the season, but you could say the same about Sam James. I can’t shake off the feeling that it should be either George or Rob on the pitch, but not both. Start one and bring the other off the bench – either way round, it doesn’t matter – and keep Sam J’s rugby intelligence where it’s needed: on the pitch.

We’re going to miss Cobus in the pack: watching the scrum go backwards like that was seriously concerning. It may have been the plastic pitch, but we’ve scrummed on them before and not had such a torrid time. There are three packs in the Premiership who are licking their lips after watching that; we’re going to have to make a big statement in two weeks’ time to wipe the smiles off their faces.

But enough. It’s hard to shake off the feeling that the season has gone well and truly off the rails but, with effort, we can cling to the knowledge that the Premiership is still in our hands and that one concerted effort against Bristol could turn it around again.

Positives: Akker’s back and picked up from where he left off. So good to see the warthog crashing over the line in the way we’ve come to know and love. SiMac is making a strong case to be the starting loosehead. I don’t know what’s happened to Bev’s mojo, and I hope it comes back soon but the scrum looked a lot more stable when Si came on. (To be fair to Bev, it seemed that the referee never managed – or cared – to get the scrum stable after the bind, which may have caused some of the problems.)

I thought Tom Roebuck looked sharp and took his try excellently, showing that it’s not only Josh Adams who can carve defences open. Joe Carpenter continued his astonishing debut year with a very mature performance: I feel confident with him at the back. It’s hard to see how Luke is going to get a look in, but I think he needs some game time: having two classy fullbacks, two classy fly halves and two classy scrum halves is a good look for any team.

Talking of which, if Joe is having a great season, I don’t think it’s a slight to say that Gus is having an unexpected season. Perhaps it doesn’t surprise the coaches but, from an onlooker’s perspective, to go from definite third choice, with limited game time, to front runner – keeping Raffi on the bench – over the summer break is some feat.

I don’t think we’re going to see the best of George Ford until next season and my fear is that it’ll be late next season because we’ll probably lose him to the World Cup. I’m tempted to say that we should start Rob at 10 for the remainder and bring George off the bench (as a direct replacement, no mucking about shifting positions). How we play next season will be almost entirely decided by Borthwick’s plans for Ford.

I think my biggest regret over the defeat is that it’s eighty minutes of extra game time that George Ford won’t be getting ahead of the resumption of the Premiership. I’m starting to think that the game at Bristol is going to be make-or-break for our chances of a home semi-final. I know that it’s still not over, even if we lose, but the psychological toll may be too much, whereas a win could have the opposite effect: to galvanise the team and spur them on to the finishing line.

And on that note, I’m afraid that SAMP™ gives us little to cheer about…

SAMP–5Bristol 20 – 16 Sale
SAMP–10Bristol 19 – 19 Sale

Here’s hoping it’s wrong again…


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