“Quirke… to Ford… to Twickenham.”
Alastair Eykyn’s final comment may not be destined to be remembered in the same way as Kenneth Woolstenholme’s, but it was apt and it summed up a hard, brutal, compelling match.
I’d spent most of the week before the game telling myself, “You’re a 67-year-old grown-arsed man. You should not be having palpitations over a rugby match”. Yeah, go tell my limbic system. There must be teams of learned professors who spend their lives studying the way that attachment to a sporting team can render a normally rational, well-adjusted person into a gibbering wreck at the thought of losing a semi-final.
I’m assuming that, by now, you’ve all re-watched the game at least once – if you haven’t, what is wrong with you? – so I’m not going to go into any great detail about events on the pitch. No, this is going to be a slightly more personal contemplation.
Technically, I’m not a northerner. I was born in Kent and came to Manchester at the age of eighteen to attend university. That was forty-nine years ago and I’m still here. My life is here, my heart is here, I dragged my wife up here when we got married, and my sons were born here; I have never considered living anywhere else and I will probably die here. I am a Manc in everything but birth and accent.
All of which is to say that I get it, that I am fully invested in the whole “northern rugby matters” push: the pride in the place, in the shirt, in the culture – I share them all.
I’m also trying to say that actually being born here isn’t absolutely necessary to feel a complete and total commitment to the cause.
And to be as excited as a kid at Christmas over winning a semi-final…
It was some time in the mid-nineties when a friend suggested that we go to Heywood Road to watch the then newly-promoted Sale FC. This was a time when the “big” clubs would send a second team up to play those oiks in the north, so we rarely got to watch the name players – the internationals – up close. Even so, we went to every game that season and the following year I bought a season ticket and have had one every year since.
In the years following that first visit, I have been privileged to meet many, many wonderful, funny people (and several weirdos) that I am now proud to call friends. We have shared the up and downs, the laughter and the tears. We’ve got drunk together, we’ve visited beautiful places and made friends around Europe and the UK and all because we are nutcases who love rugby, and one team in particular.
And so it was that, in 2006, we celebrated a semi-final victory against Wasps at the end of a season in which we topped the league. Twickenham awaited. We had been there twice before for the final of the ever-changing-name cup and had lost both times. This time, we were due to face a Leicester side that seriously threatened our becoming the first team to both top the league and win the final.
Seventeen years on, and there I was, in the south stand, with many of those same people as Sale came out to face a Leicester side that seriously threatened us making it to a second Premiership final.
But let’s also remember those (too many) who weren’t there this time, those we’ve lost along the way, and so leave room for a small tear and a moment of reflection amid the joy and the celebration.
I suppose I ought to say a bit about the game, though…
You might call this a game for the aficionados. Certainly, it lacked the free running and try scoring of the previous day’s semi. But what it lacked in those areas, it more than made up for in brutality and cerebrality (my spell-checker thinks that isn’t a word. Neither does my dictionary. They’re both wrong).
This was a test match to the other game’s one-day international; a meeting of heavyweights trying to out-think each other, rather than a slug-fest with little subtlety. Tactics: hold your nerve, try to coax the other into a mistake and hope you’re sharp enough to take advantage.
It was also unremittingly brutal. The crunch of bodies colliding as heard over RefLink was colossal. I found myself wincing with every tackle, every ruck, every scrum.
This was proper rugby. Oh, I enjoy the open games as much as anyone but if that’s all you want – one team runs and scores, the other team runs and scores, then the first team… – then watch basketball. Yes, fast-running, free-scoring rugby is fun but so is the slow, grinding meeting of tectonic plates. There’s room for both.
Before the game, I had it as 50–50: there wasn’t a fag paper between them as far as I could see. Then, ten minutes before the game, the news filtered through that Pollard was out and the odds went to 60–40 in favour of Sale. It wasn’t more than that because Gopperth was the replacement and he’s dangerous in his own right.
Ten minutes in, and I’m thinking that we’re going to be undone by a reversion to type. Five penalties given away and the only reason we weren’t 9–0 down was that Gopperth inexplicably missed one of his kicks.
But then we got a grip, settled down and started to claw back the initiative. Significant statistic: We gave up five penalties in the first twelve minutes and only four in the remaining 68. Given the nature of the match, that’s something we need to hold on to and build on. It is possible to play on the edge without falling off.
Then Roebuck scored and Ford converted and we got to half-time 7–6 ahead. A bit too close for comfort, but the signs were there that we had the measure of them.
Come the second half and Wiese nearly scored but was bundled into touch in goal. Ford took the first of three opportunities to move the scoreboard with a penalty, but then Potter got a try back, Gopperth kicked a touchline conversion of his own and we were behind again.
But it wasn’t long before Leicester transgressed and Ford said “Right, let’s level it up”. Then Arron somehow picked up a scudding pass off his bootlaces and it was now a five-point lead. Arron and Raffi combined for a seventy-odd metre score that would have killed off the contest but for a forward pass. It didn’t count, but it was still magnificent to watch.
Then we got another penalty and I could hear some muttering; “Go for the corner”. But this was a semi-final; there are no try-scoring bonus points, only win or obscurity. We took the three, went two scores ahead and the rest is history.
Cue the stadium roof lifting a couple of feet, seismometers in the area going crazy and 10,000 Sale fans going utterly bananas.
If you ever wondered why we wanted George Ford in the first place and why it was important to get him playing asap, despite Rob tearing up the pitch all season, just look at this game and the four previous games and consider his decision-making, focusing for now on when to kick for goal.
We beat Gloucester by a penalty (3T, 2C, 2P versus 3T, 2C, 1P). Against Bristol, three penalties and a drop goal kept us ahead on the scoreboard until we started to open up the game and score the tries.
And then this game: when we were three points down, George chose to kick for goal to pull us level and then, when we were five points up, he eschewed the kick to the corner that many were calling for and kicked the goal to put us two scores clear. That kick, I maintain, won us the game. Without it, Leicester would have known that all they needed was a try: a conversion would win it, otherwise they got extra time and another chance. Two scores, however…
The only time that I’ve seen a chance at a penalty or drop goal spurned when those of us watching felt it should have been on was late in the game against Cardiff.
We lost that one by a single point…
Compare that with Leicester on Sunday: two scores down with time against them and, rather than take the points to make it one score, they chose to kick for the corner – twice! – and shanked it – twice! How would the last five minutes have gone if they’d kicked that first penalty, rather than slicing it to touch in goal?
What I’m saying is that George’s experience and all-round rugby nous are winning games for us and he should not be watching from the sidelines if he’s fit to play. And I haven’t even mentioned his decision-making everywhere else and his constant chivvying and encouraging of those around him.
It feels as if we finally have the last piece of the jigsaw in place.
And then we have twenty-two other heroes. Every man-Jack of them left everything out on the pitch. For the club, for themselves, for us.
There was much talk before the match about Steward but Joe Carpenter matched him catch for catch, kick for kick and run for run. It takes a lot to shift the incumbent in an international team but I think Joe is capable of making Steward very nervous over the next season or two.
I haven’t got the time or space to give everyone the praise they deserve, so I’ll just mention a couple, starting with Jono (and, yes, because he’s retiring). I am in awe of his tenacity, his determination and his willingness to bleed for the cause. It takes a special type of person to supplant someone like Dan Braid in the “Sale Sharks heroes” pantheon, but I think Jono has managed it. It’s not inappropriate to mention him in the same breath as Sebastian Chabal…
I had my misgivings about putting Dan du Preez on the bench, given his shoulder problems: I envisaged him coming on for Jono, getting broken and leaving us down to fourteen at the end of the game. It wasn’t Jono he replaced and he lasted forty-five minutes, but he got broken and will miss the final. Fortunately, we still had O’Flats on the bench so ended the game with fifteen, even if it was seven forwards and eight backs. In his forty-five minutes, though, Dan – as ever – gave everything to the cause.
And then there’s Ben Curry. Captain for the bulk of the season, growing in stature, finally recognised by England and then the cruellest of blows. Turn over the ball after a tackle, get the penalty and then get flattened, resulting in a torn hamstring.
The only thing that’s going to sour the final is the absence of Ben and Dan. We still have Tom and JL, but that’s a serious blow to our forward firepower. Time for a couple of others to step up and prove themselves.
And so to the final: what are our chances? Interesting factoid – over the two games this season, the cumulative score is 57–57. They won one more game than us over the season, yet I can think of at least two games that we could and should have won.
Losing Ben and Dan is a blow, but I think we and Saracens are much more closely matched than people might give credit for.
That said, I’m much more sanguine about this game than I was about the semi. There’s a sense that we have done amazingly well to get to this point: it’s expected of Sarries, but I think we’ve shocked an awful lot of people this season. I’m just going to enjoy the occasion, spend a weekend with mates, soak up the atmosphere and celebrate. If we win, that’s fabulous; if we lose… well, they finished first, so it’s only fair. We still get to run out at Twickenham†.
Play well, lads. Do it for the skipper.
† This statement is, of course, utter bollocks. If we lose, I shall be screaming and ranting at the injustice of it and at the incompetence of the referee.