There’s no such thing as a dead match: if you’re not playing at the very least for pride, then what are you doing on the pitch?
Yes, there were more “meaningful” games happening – at least, as far as Gloucester, Bristol and Bath were concerned – and, yes, the semi-finals had been pretty much decided the week before (as if Quins were going to beat Leicester by 65 points) but this was still an important match for Sale. And for Newcastle, even though their fate had similarly been sealed: there’s still that “pride” thing.
For Sale, there was the potential to finish at least six – and maybe ten – points ahead of Leicester versus ending up only one point ahead. And that gap in the table can be quite important psychologically. As can the knowledge that you’ve already beaten them twice this season…
Add to that a swansong for some departing players (OK, for Cliffy: Jono and Ewan will play again and Byron missed out on selection) and we had all the makings of a celebratory afternoon. It would have been nice if the weather had joined in, though.
I’ll also add that Newcastle’s snide little tweet during the week – and despite enjoying the riposte from Sale – converted me from being happy for them to get a bit of pride back in a back-and-forth thriller (whilst still losing, obviously) to wanting us to absolutely hammer them.
Conceding a try after three minutes, then, was not conducive to fostering the party atmosphere. It came as a result of Raffi’s early attempted clearance kick being charged down and, although we recovered the ball from that, we couldn’t clear territory sufficiently. The defence fragmented a bit, and Rubiolo found a gap that shouldn’t have been there.
And so it continued for the next five or so minutes, with Newcastle on top and, if not exactly threatening the line, frustrating Sale into some silly mistakes. Until, that is, George Ford did a very George Ford thing and turned the tide with a single kick.
Aside: I don’t fully understand the use of the term “spiral bomb”, because it seems to me that the whole point is that the ball doesn’t spin and that’s why it has a chaotic trajectory, like a bullet fired from a gun without rifling. “Spiral”, to me, has always referred to putting spin on the ball about its long axis, stabilising it in flight and increasing the distance travelled. Take a look at any NFL quarterback putting in a huge throw.
Anyway, back to George. From well inside his own half, he fired a perfectly rifled kick that bounced about two metres from the touchline and maybe twelve metres from the Newcastle line. Now, that’s what you call a 50–22.
We buggered up the resulting attack, but that kick had shifted the momentum in Sale’s favour. So it was that, a few minutes later, we all strained our necks watching a ball go up into the sky that was due to come down with snow on it.
What happened next would not have been out of place in a Road Runner cartoon. The Newcastle scrummy, Stuart, was poised to catch the ball: perfectly placed, textbook catching pose. With the ball inches from his arms, a blue, Roebuck-shaped blur shot past taking the ball with it and leaving Stuart unceremoniously dumped, Dallaglio-like, on his arse. I almost missed the actual try from laughing too much. (Watching the replay in the ground, I thought he might have been ahead of the kick but, rewatching later, you can see he’s just in line.)
But that was it, we were off. Newcastle put up a spirited fight but Sale were just too strong in all areas.
Except for the lineout. Still some issues there. Gloss over, move on…
Manu went off after about fifteen minutes with split webbing on his hand. That brought Sam James on, who proceeded to put in a performance that quietly said, “Drop me, eh? Well, this is what you’re missing…”
… Starting with topping and tailing a move with Joe Carpenter that ended in Sale’s second and Sam’s first try.
Ten minutes later, Ben Curry – him again! – ended a series of try line rucks by burrowing through the defence for try number three and a 21–7 half-time lead.
Then, three minutes after the restart, from a scrum, Jono to Ben to Jean-Luc, who burst through the defence to about five metres out, then it was Ford at scrum half to Coenie at fly-half to Rob at inside, a subtle delay then off to Bev at outside to flop over for the bonus-point try.
It’s a measure of where Newcastle are that Sale’s fifth try came directly from a Falcons penalty. Stuart took a quick tap and got munched. The ball came to Carl Fearns who threw it randomly backwards – the word “passed” in this context would be wholly incorrect – and, in a variant of Roedrunner’s try, Raffi snatched the ball one-handed from under a Falcon’s nose and raced forty-odd metres for the easiest try he’ll probably ever score.
Try number six came after Sam James, not to be outdone by George, put in a lovely kick that was destined to be another 50–22 but for Radwan knocking it back infield inches from the line. With hindsight, he may have been better off letting it go out because what followed was not pretty for anyone of a north-eastern persuasion.
Having pulled off his bit of skill, Radwan fumbled the pickup, giving Sale a scrum at the five-metre junction out left. Cliffy had come on at this point and the general feeling in the crowd was that the day would be perfect if he could snipe a try from the base of the scrum.
He didn’t get the chance, though. It gives you a warm feeling when you watch your replacement front row come on and actually increase the pressure on the opposition scrum – especially when two of that front row are young lads with a whole future ahead of them.
Anyway, the upshot was that we had four attempts at completing a scrum before referee Cox got fed up and awarded the penalty try and obligatory yellow card.
We nearly got the Cliffy try that we were all hoping for a couple of minutes later when he found himself with the ball in a similar position to Raffi earlier. Alas, the old man’s legs were not able to replicate the feat and a long pass out to the wing went a bit astray.
Not too far astray, though, as Sale recovered the ball and sent it smoothly across the field for Arron to drop over the line unopposed.
Try number eight came once again from a Newcastle being loose and imprecise. They had just managed to turn over the ball but were dithering a bit at the subsequent ruck. SiMac had a quick barge, which dislodged the Newcastle guys over the ball, exposing it. Harper showed good awareness to quickly pick the ball up and start the move that ended up a few passes later with Sam James going over for his second. Was there a double movement there? Maybe, but I’m going with “not held in the tackle”, so no problem.
They let Cliffy take the conversion but he shanked it. A pity but I don’t think it mattered in the end. We know; we appreciate.
Credit to Newcastle, despite a right royal pasting, they rallied at the end and managed a consolation try three minutes into overtime. I’m not sure why they decided to drop-kick the conversion: it’s not like they needed to do it quickly to get another restart in. Maybe they just wanted to get back to the changing room.
I don’t have a lot to say in conclusion that I haven’t said before. I’ll just note that Ethan Caine and James Harper did themselves proud when they came on. And don’t say “Ah, well, Newcastle…” in that knowing way. They did more than beat up a demoralised scrum: there’s genuine talent there and we need to keep them and nurture them.
Raffi is showing more and more signs of the player who impressed so mightily a couple of seasons back. I think he’s not yet back to full Raffi and remains second choice for the next two games at least. Next year? Who knows. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him completely revitalised after the off-season and taking the Premiership by storm again.
And then there’s George Ford. A horrible injury and a long, long layoff but with every game he shows more and more what absolute class he is. It was so important to play him in this game, even at the risk of injury, because that extra eighty minutes made a difference and showed why he has been possibly the most eagerly anticipated signing in years.
And so to the big one. Leicester are on a roll, but they are beatable: we know, we’ve done it twice this season – third time’s the charm. It’s not going to be easy but, if you get too hung up on how tough it’s going to be, you just make it tougher.
Believe. Twickenham awaits.