Posted in match reports

View from the armchair: Gloucester 22 Sale 25 [GP]

Aaaaaaand … breathe.

By ’eck, that were a hard watch. Proper squeaky bum time from start to finish. From Rees-Zammit’s nearly try (I thought we lucked out there – if I was TMO, I’d probably have told Foley to stick with his on-field decision) to keeping Glos in the game with all those penalties right at the death, that was significantly more nerve-wracking than last week’s game at Bristol.

I know that defeat wouldn’t have been the end of the world but, psychologically, this victory was unbelievably important. Returning to the what-is-it-actually-called-now stadium after so long away with no pressure and in a celebratory mood means so much to the team and the fans. Note to the caterers: lay in extra beer.

It’s easy to call this a lacklustre game; one for the purists; a bit of a bore-fest, even. It would also be easy to criticise Sale for not putting a team plummeting down the table to the sword. But that, I think, minimises several subtle factors, not least of which is the mental pressure of really wanting to secure the home semi-final this week and not leave it till the last game. I know it’s what I wanted, and I’m pretty sure the players – for all their mental preparation and focus – would have had it at the back of their minds.

Add in one of those execrable plastic pitches (which we never do well on), increasingly filthy weather, and an opposition with something to prove and there’s no way this game was going to be anything other than an attritional battle.

So, yes, it’s possible to criticise the performance: too many penalties (again), two yellow cards (again), too much kicking … whatever your particular bugbear is, even if you don’t go as far as the Sunday Times reporter who seemed to believe that the Gloucester midfield was running rings around ours all evening.

Yeah, there were things wrong, things to improve on; but keep this one fact uppermost in your mind when considering them: we won. Despite making mistakes, despite the pitch, despite the weather and despite all those things I mentioned above, we won. It’s been a long time since we would have come out of that game as any more than gallant losers (and plenty of times we would have been stuffed), so never, ever underestimate the significance of this win, especially coupled with last week’s.

Also, I think it’s significant that two of Sale’s tries came from counter-attacks: Joe and Raffi returning Morgan’s upfield hoof with interest, and Ben’s quick thinking to pick up a loose ball on the halfway line. Also, Ben intercepting a pass and putting Sale in a promising position until Jono let them off the hook by sliding in on the man on the ground.

And I think that boils my … blood … more than almost anything else: giving away an avoidable penalty when in a strong attacking position. We did it against Cardiff, we did it here, and we’ve done it numerous times in the past. I mean, the heat of the moment and all that stuff but, really? How many other teams bugger up attacks quite so regularly with penalties that aren’t forced by a good defence?

OK, yes, I’m aware that I said “focus on the win” above, so let’s forget the generalised complaints and get back to the specifics of achieving a home semi-final seventeen years after the last one.

After the scare of Rees-Zammit’s near try, it was good to see pragmatism rule as Ford took the first opportunity for points by kicking a penalty mid-way through the first half. Hastings levelled the score ten minutes later but, just before half-time, Jean-Luc extended a telescopic arm for the first try. Advantage Sale, 10–3.

Gloucester responded with red zone pressure of their own, ending with referee Foley getting fed up with Sale constantly infringing and sending Tom Curry to the bin with a couple of minutes to go to the break.

We were within a couple of minutes of negotiating the yellow card when Manu came in at the side of a ruck and was sent for a ten-minute rest of his own. Incidentally, that’s now six yellows in the second half of the season, compared to two in the first half. Just sayin’.

Those couple of minutes down to thirteen were enough to let Gloucester level the scores through Ludlow and then, ten minutes later, go in the lead through a cracking team try finished off by Rees-Zammit.

A minute later, though, Sale scored a cracker of their own. Joe fielded the Morgan upfield hoick (not too shabby, actually – at least for distance, if not direction) near the halfway line. Joe passed it on to Raffi, who skipped past a (frankly, pathetic) tackle and charged up to the 22. The ball reached Arron, via Sam James, but he was brought down about two metres out. Raffi got in quickly and there was Jono, crashing through a barn door of a hole in the defence. All square and, five minutes later, more welcome pragmatism as Ford kicked another penalty to give Sale the lead again.

A three-point lead with fifteen minutes to go is not exactly conducive to relaxed watching, but we were holding on. Then, well into the final ten minutes, with Gloucester building an attack on halfway, Ben was first to spot a loose ball, grabbed it and made ground upfield. He passed it to George who shipped it on to Sam James and we were now eight points up with five minutes to go. Close to the two-points-per-minute rule.

Of course, we couldn’t just see the game out, could we? Gloucester, desperate to get a least a losing bonus, came on the attack. Sale defended well, but still gave away too many penalties: I was half-expecting a third binning. With time nearly up, Hastings missed a kick but left enough on the clock for the restart. Yep, we gave away a penalty, they took the lineout, we gave up another penalty advantage, and they swung it wide for May to score a try out on the left. Twelvetrees made a hash of the conversion and we were left nursing victory by the margin of one of those pragmatic penalty kicks.

As last week, plaudits go to everyone, but I want to single out Coenie, who ended up putting in a massive 78-minute shift after Sharkey went off early (here’s hoping it’s not too serious).

And so to the final game at home to Newcastle. We’ve secured the home semi-final, but that’s no reason to ease off, for several reasons. First – selfishly – this will be only the fourth home game this year – with nothing at all in the whole of April – and I want to see a reasonably full-strength team on one of my rare visits to the stadium. Secondly – and more importantly – I think we still need some game time to eliminate a few areas where the return of George has disturbed the balance a bit.

On the other hand, I’m mindful that there’s no point in risking key players in a nothing match. Although it’s not exactly a “nothing game”: even with the top four decided, there’s a difference between going into the semi having ended up one point ahead of Leicester and being six points ahead.

But then, I want to give Cliffy and Horse a proper send-off. So what to do?

I think I’d give Gus a rest and start Raffi. Put Cliffy on the bench and let him bow out in style. Similarly, Horse on the bench, like this game but this time use him. I might also rest Manu and put Mills out there – he needs a bit more game time. Possibly give Joe a break and give the fifteen shirt to Luke (assuming he’s fit)? If Dan’s fit, do we risk aggravating the injury or save him for the important games? Give Josh a start in place of Jonny, perhaps. That still leaves a pretty strong side that should be more than capable of bringing home the bacon.

SAMP™ thinks we should win:

SAMP–5Sale 25 – 16 Newcastle
SAMP–10Sale 23 – 18 Newcastle

Whatever the team, whatever the score, it’s going to be Celebration Day ahead of the serious business of doing over Leicester for the third time this season the week after.

Bring it on.


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

2 thoughts on “View from the armchair: Gloucester 22 Sale 25 [GP]

  1. Great post! I’m glad Sale was able to secure the home semi-final and that the victory was so significant. I do have a question: you mentioned that the return of George has disturbed the balance a bit, can you elaborate on that?

    MR. W

    1. SImply that I thought that Gus – Rob – Manu – SamJ was working well and that fitting George in has disrupted the fluency a bit. Now, it’s a matter of getting the new combination working as slickly as the old. Nothing more than that.

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