Posted in match reports

View from the armchair: Bristol 20 Sale 36 [GP]

“That’ll do, Donkey. That’ll do.”

It’s a well-known saying that a couple of curries on a Friday night will set you up perfectly for the weekend. (OK, OK… it should be a well-known saying.)


A few weeks ago, looking at the run-in for the rest of the season I said “we know how to beat Bristol – we just have to do it”. And how you do it is to stifle them; deprive them of the space they need to get their backs going; bully them; make them go backwards.

And that’s what we did. Boy, did we do it…

I think that was the most Forshaw-esque defensive performance that I’ve seen since the man himself departed for the land of the dragon. It was so good to see, once again, a defence that begrudged every metre of ground and took every score as a personal affront. Watch Topsy Ojo’s analysis of it: it’s on YouTube somewhere.

I will admit to fearing the worst heading into this game. Performances since the win away at Quins had not been encouraging: mullered by Toulouse and Ulster, nearly blew it against Bath, mullered by Northampton and Exeter, pulled it back against Saracens, beaten at their own game by Irish. Coming back against Cardiff gave a glimmer of hope, but this game was, for me, going to be the acid test. Win, and I’d believe we were back on track; lose, and I couldn’t see a way back: at best, an away semi-final beckoned.

I assume George won the training ground kicking contest this week, since it was he who stepped up after a minute to take a forty-odd-metre penalty. I thought it was a good decision to go for the posts at this point.

Laurel and Hardy up in the commentary box were blithering on about being second in the league, so trust yourself to go for the corner, but I’ve long since stopped paying any attention to them. (Aside: I always find it amusing to listen to them trying to explain a point of law when the referee has actually just explained it and it’s nothing like what they’re saying. “I think that was a harsh decision” immediately after Pearce has told the player, “You’re entitled to go for the charge-down but, if you miss, it’s your fault”. Sometimes it can be more entertaining than the match.)

Anyway, forget second in the league, you’re on the back end of an extended sequence of disappointing results and you desperately need a win tonight. An early opportunity to put points on the board, settle the nerves and build some confidence ought to be a no-brainer.

And then build on it, lay the foundation by taking the points when the opportunity arises in the middle of what was a pretty flat game for the first half hour: at least, it seemed a bit subdued watching on the telly – maybe they’d turned the effects mikes down, but it seemed very quiet and almost pedestrian at times. Anyway, keep slotting the penalties, keep the scoreboard ticking over – ignore the fact that you’ve given them two back, just concentrate on your own game – take the opportunity of a drop goal (if only they’d done that two weeks before) and here you are, twelve-six up with half an hour gone and looking comfortable, if not dominant (Currys aside: we’ll get to that later).

And then, suddenly, Manu’s charging down the left, O’Flats outside him… A deft pass that was within a gnat’s of being good enough, a juggle for control and— not quite. That little juggle took enough out that the covering defender was able to pull O’Flats’s foot into touch before he could ground the ball.

But we’d now seen the first really encouraging sign that that early preparation was starting to reap benefits. Especially when, a couple of minutes later, from a ruck outside the Bristol 22, Tom popped the ball inside to Ben, Lahiff fell off the tackle and Ben was able to run the 25-odd metres to the line unchallenged. The score was now 19–6 to Sale and lots of northern hearts were starting to beat more slowly again.

You knew there was going to be a “but”, though, didn’t you?

In a stark demonstration that there’s still work to be done, Bristol mounted an attack (gifted them courtesy of a couple of silly penalties) and, on the stroke of half-time AJ’s inch-perfect cross-kick to Naulago and inch-perfect conversion brought them back to within six points.

Five minutes into the second half, we gained another contender in the “who should play 13” controversy: Jono. Smoothly gathering a pass that was a bit too far behind him, he pirouetted out of the defender’s grasp, sold a dummy, cut inside and carried the ball up to the five-metre line. One quick ruck later and J-L is sauntering through a huge gap in the defence. I thought he looked a bit disappointed with the score since it didn’t involve playing pinball with any Bristol defenders. It doesn’t seem right, a du Preez twin scoring without the sight of defenders flying off like skittles.

So, back to a thirteen-point lead and soon to be sixteen with another Ford penalty.

I might as well talk about it here as later. It wasn’t the most controversial decision of the round, but Genge’s yellow certainly classes as one of those annoying incidents that have a tendency to detract from the rest of the game and which have the non-diehard observers scratching their heads wondering “does this game really want to grow the fanbase?”

I have a lot of time for Luke Pearce and, if I disagree with him about there not being a “high level of danger” in this case, well, he’s the one with the training and the experience and the qualifications, not me.

I suspect that what we’re seeing these days with this is-it-red-is-it-yellow confusion is the result of referees trying to speed up the review process, which I think can only be a good thing. I’d rather they watch-decide-continue than spend interminable minutes trying to decide if the ball grazed a fingernail in flight. And if it’s going to be speeded up, I’d prefer the referee to have a quick(ish) look, decide yellow is appropriate and have that reviewed by a citing officer, than have a game spoiled by a hasty red, which later gets turned over; to no-one’s benefit, least of all the spectators.

On the other hand, rugby union really needs to consider whether it thinks that growing an audience is best served by an apparent fascination for removing players from the pitch at the slightest provocation. Take Woodburn’s red card this weekend: quite honestly, why was either of his offences considered worthy of removing him from the pitch at all, let alone permanently? What was gained by sending him off? I mean, come on – the knock-on: award a penalty, move on. Leave the serious sanction for the guy who slaps it down five metres from the line with an unopposed winger outside him (q.v. “probable try”). And as for yellow for defending your line? It may be the law but, bloody Nora, the law’s an ass, then… Talk about picky, picky, picky.

My missus is not a fan of the game, but she’ll sometimes watch when it’s on and I can pretty much guarantee that there will come a point when she says “oh, for goodness’ sake, just give him the try and get on with it”. How many other potential bums on seats have watched things like that and thought, “nah”?

Sorry, rant over, back to your scheduled programming…

Right, where was I? Oh, yes, Genge having a ten-minute rest and Sale failing to take advantage – another slight concern from this match.

But, then, with a bit over ten minutes to go, Gus was given the ball behind a breakdown. He shaped to pass down the line but spotted a big hole around the fringes and slipped through it like a… very slippery thing. Try number three, still time for the bonus point.

But no, they couldn’t manage it. Bristol pulled one back near the end, but it was too late for them and Sale came out deserved winners and guaranteed semi-finalists, although that could yet be in fourth place. The bonus point would have guaranteed third because it would have left Irish only able to come level on points, but with fewer wins. As it is, they can still go ahead of us.

Four points from the last two games are all we need. Well, maybe, but we want ten points (eight at a pinch). I really want us to take second place away from Leicester while they look on helplessly from their bye week. That would be so psychologically satisfying, and we can achieve it with a win at Gloucester. It would also give the club a couple of extra weeks to big up both the Newcastle game and the semi-final and get a couple more sell-outs going. After the way the schedulers have shafted us over the last couple of months, I think that’s the least that the club and the fans deserve.

In summary: a bit of a curate’s egg. Predominantly positive: back to form, look out everybody else. Sale played the right game for the conditions and the opposition and played it nearly perfectly.

But still, a couple of areas of concern remain that we would hope to be ironed out quickly: not punishing the yellow card; gifting the impetus back to the opposition with unnecessary penalties, that sort of thing.

It was a filthy night, so some errors can probably be excused, but I can’t help but feel that we need to eliminate those over the next two games or Leicester and Saracens will punish us.

Plaudits time: everyone. Seriously, everyone.

The Currys, of course, were just on another plane of existence; a stunning performance and exemplar of the two working together being even greater than the not inconsiderable sum of the parts. It was a slick double-act: one tackles, the other poaches. I hope Borthwick was watching that.

Jono seems to have figured out the trick of not pissing off the ref whilst still tackling everything that moves (and a couple of things that don’t). An immense game from him.

At this point, I think that starting with SiMac and bringing Bev off the bench is working better than the other way around. Similarly with Gus and Raffi. Next season may be different, but I see no reason not to keep this arrangement through to Twickenham.

Rob looks to have remembered how to play 13 – the defensive line looked impregnable for almost the entire game.

And George Ford is looking imperious. I know it’s not supposed to be about one player but, come on… Leicester have looked so much better than the side we beat twice, ever since Pollard found his form here (remember his torrid game at the end of December?). The presence of George Ford may well be the factor that negates that Pollard-inspired improvement in them come the semi-final. I have a lot of respect for Chris Ashton and I was dead chuffed for him getting his ton this weekend, but, should we meet them again in a few weeks, I want him to end his career as a losing semi-finalist.

And so to Gloucester. I’ve seen it suggested that we should rest Manu and, possibly, George to avoid the possibility of them being injured by the plastic pitch—

Sorry, another rant coming on…

How on earth can it be the case that a team has to even consider not playing someone because of the opposition’s pitch? How can a playing surface that can potentially seriously injure somebody be legal? Grass should be the only acceptable playing surface in the Premiership.

And breathe…

—but, on the other hand, they both played against Cardiff with no ill effects, so I’d say we should play the same team unless we wanted to give some other players game time ahead of the season’s end as injury insurance. Even so, that shouldn’t come ahead of the desire to win this game: I want to be heading to the Newcastle game already celebrating, not having to bite my nails for eighty minutes hoping for a celebration at the end.

We need four points, we want ten…

So, how are we going to do? SAMP™ is giving mixed messages…

SAMP–5Gloucester 21 – 25 Sale
SAMP–10Gloucester 25 – 22 Sale

I’m going with recent form…


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