Rugby to give you heart failure is back in Salford. Squeaky bum time just doesn’t do that last ten minutes justice. Flashbacks to watching Dr Who from behind the sofa as a kid.
On paper, this should have been a fairly comfortable win: we have a good record against Bristol and they’re having a pretty torrid time of it this season. Second against tenth shouldn’t be hugely difficult, right?
Yeah, but rugby’s not played on paper. Take some key players still missing for Sale and the return of Luatua for Bristol, and things looked a bit less cut-and-dried than they may have seemed.
The first half was pretty even: Tom Roebuck appeared to have scored a Denny-esque try early on, but it was ruled out on review. Then Bristol butchered a chance of their own before Rob opened the scoring in the eighth minute after some sustained pressure enabled by a succession of Bristol penalties.
Halfway into the half, Bristol took the lead with a – let’s not be ungenerous, here – gorgeously worked try for O’Connor.
Three minutes later, Roebuck got his try, deftly nicking Rob’s high cross-kick from Piatau’s grasp and sprinting over the line. Fifteen-seven and on track…
Yeah, of course not. Within a few minutes, O’Connor had scored his second and Bristol were only one point behind.
Then, remarkably, only a couple of minutes before half-time, Sale gave up their first penalty to allow Bristol to clear their half. Then they gave up their second, which AJ kicked easily to give the Bears a two-point lead at half-time.
If the first half was fairly even, the second was anything but. Bristol must have had 80–90% of the possession and territory in the second half, but a 47th-minute penalty was all they ultimately had to show for it (only three penalties given away in forty-seven minutes: surprising; two of them kickable: obviously). Rob nullified that a couple of minutes later with a well-taken kick of his own.
The rest of the half basically consisted of Sale closing down and beating back wave after wave of Bristol attacks. Then, well into the final quarter, in what felt like Sale’s only incursion into the Bristol 22, Jean-Luc scored the (converted) try that proved to be the eventual difference between the teams.
We were then subjected to five minutes of nail-clenching, bum-biting [? shurely shome mishtake – Ed] agony as Bristol mounted a furious assault on the Sale try line. Like a storm surge on speed, Bristol mounted wave after wave of attack on the Sale try line. But Sale’s defence was the sea wall dissipating the energy of each attack, sapping the will until, finally, Bristol’s hopes were dashed as Jenkins appeared to be in for the score, but was bundled into touch in goal. Twenty-two drop-out, pressure relieved, wear down the clock and finally hoof the ball to the back of the east stand.
I daresay there was much head-scratching and pondering in the Bristol camp over their abject failure to convert all that second-half possession (they should have had six points, but AJ absolutely skanked a sitter).
But I’m more concerned about Sale’s propensity to hand the initiative to the opposition after half-time, and their seeming inability to get it back once lost.
In most games, there is an ebb and flow as one team gains the upper hand for a while, then the other is on top, and so on, back and forth. But for several seasons now, Sale seem to have difficulty getting back on top, especially after the break, and spend extended periods under pressure. This tends to raise the penalty count as they defend ever more desperately (Sale gave away nine penalties in this game, the fourth being given in the sixtieth minute. More than half of the penalties Sale gave away came in the final quarter).
I mean, all praise to Forsh for the immense job he’s done with the defence, but I’d like to spend a bit less time appreciating that and more time cheering the attack. So far this season, we’ve had 46% of the possession and 50% of the territory. At home, those numbers are 45% and 47%. At our own place, we spend less time with the ball than the visitors and spend more time in our own half than they do in theirs.
The fact that we are winning so much this season sort of papers over that statistic somewhat. “Hey, we’re winning! Isn’t that what counts?” Maybe, but would we have nine, not seven, in the “W” column if we spent more time attacking and a bit less defending? Might we have more than four try bonus points? Might we be the ones looking down on the others with the benefit of an eleven-point gap, rather than looking nervously at a two-point gap (as of game 1, Round 12 – I’m very late with this one)?
I hope someone is looking at this because it concerns me and is the principal reason that I feel so nervous going onto any game: the possibility that we’ll hand the initiative over and then struggle for the rest of the match.
On the plaudits front, this game could have been headlined “du Preez family 20, Bristol 20”, with just Tom Roebuck stopping the clean sweep. We all know what the huge twins bring, so there’s no reason to belabour the point, but let’s just stop and bask in the rise and rise of Rob. It’s been remarked several times in the past that Rob is a confidence player and, boy, is his confidence sky-high at the moment. I think this shows most clearly in the fact that he missed his first kick (it wasn’t easy, but not impossible) but went on to kick all the others. Not so long ago, missing the first would have led to a very patchy kicking display.
Gus Warr had a decent game and Simpson came and provided about a hundred years’ worth of experience when it mattered.
Is the line-out an issue? Well, we lost three out of seventeen, so not perfect, but not hopeless. At least one of those three was down to the lifters not doing their job, rather than Akker’s throwing so, if there is an issue, it’s a collective responsibility.
As for the scrum, we won two, lost none and mullered two of theirs, so that’s a positive. It’s also good to see that we have multiple viable options in the front row: no change in intensity when the replacements came on. Where’s Coenie, by the way?
So, another week off, whilst teams around us catch up on games played. We’re guaranteed to be still in second place after this round, but the gap is getting smaller. Fortunately, nobody is close enough with games in hand to catch us, so continuing in second place is in our own hands.
That will have to wait for a couple of weeks, though, as there’s a small matter of the Heineken Cup coming up. Ulster at home first, then Toulouse away (our first away game since Saracens on the 30th October).
The Super-Accurate Mystic Predictor™ was a bit under the weather this time, overestimating the margin of victory quite considerably (but at least it got the “win” part of it right). The next game in the league is Newcastle, but that’s not until after the Toulouse game, so predictions will appear in that report.