August 6 2006
With the pre-season friendlies nearly upon us, we can start to look forward to Sale's defence of their title. "Defence of their title" has such a lovely ring to it doesn't it? In this second part of his review of the season, pitprop takes us from the AIs to the eve of the six nations.
The Autumn Internationals were always going to hold a kind of fascination for the Sale supporter. The previous autumn had seen PSA signing cover on short-term deals to see us through this period - unsuccessfully it should be added. This time though, the squad was big enough to supply international cover from within its own ranks, and as they were PSA's choice, of sufficient calibre to see us through.
The first game was at Leeds on 5th November, and the team showed some seven changes from the previous league game against Wasps. The England set-up didn't rate Andy Titterrell, but we certainly did, and the hooker cheerfully shouldered the burden he usually shared with Bruno while the Frenchman was away with "les Bleus". Opportunities but lack of finishing saw the Sharks trailing by 3-6 at the half. Taione created a try for Courrent on 45 minutes and Sale were back in business. Both Larrechea and Courrent showed their kicking prowess with dropped goals, and Larry also landed a penalty. Leeds eventually created a try for Vickerman, and 4 minutes later came the incident for which the game will be remembered. Fed up with Marshall's sly pushing and shoving, Lionel Faure, a recent replacement, rained a series of punches on the scrumhalf, who was running away at the time. A deserved red card, but Pearson could have flourished it with a little less triumphalism. Lionel left the field looking mortified. Todd then picked up a yellow for a high tackle and Sale's thirteen defended as if their lives depended on it. They didn't, but the 17-11 win did, and a determined and gutsy performance by the "reserve" team took Sale back to the top of the table. Faure's subsequent 6 week ban came at an inopportune moment, with Sheri away, but Coutts, Turner and Stewart took the weight manfully.
For the next game we welcomed the Worcester Warriors to EP. As a scrappy game approached halftime, all the scoreboard showed was two penalties for Sale and a drop goal for Wuss. The returned Seabass then imprinted his mark on the game with a surging run. Quick transference of the ball saw Jason over in the corner, but an unwelcome sight was Carter's departure with another shoulder injury in his first game back. After the break, Drahm skated under the posts and shortly after Sale's main men were involved again. Seabass gratefully accepted an overthrown lineout ball and fed it wide where Jason capitalised. Billy Whiz featured again late on when he dropped his first goal of the season, to complete a 24-13 win in front of a 7000 crowd.
While the player release row rumbled on, with the RFU withholding the Lions payments (even for Robbo, who'd retired and for Big Tam, who doesn't play for the RFU anyway!), our international platoon made their mark. Sheri destroyed both Australian props (Al Baxter and Matt Dunning) in a Man-of-the-Match-winning performance, though what 'Donk' Coutts had to say to him when he returned to the club is anybody's guess! Frank crossed the line (again!) and Charlie's kicking subdued the Ozzies. Players from further back in our scrummage fought their own personal battle as the Pumas met Scotland at Murrayfield. No doubt Nacho has reminded Big Tam of the penalty try that the Argentine pack forced to win the game!
Despite the absentees, it was a full house when Tigers came to call on the 18th November. The East Midlands club lacked even more internationals than ourselves, and with Carter and Seabass missing, NBE and Taione were brought into the back row. Leicester's Tom Croft was carded in the 6th minute for Larrechea's first penalty. Despite a club v. country tug-of-war Welsh centre Mark Taylor stayed focussed on his club duties and was first to cross the line after Todd's long break. With the penalty kicks at three each Sale led 16-9 at the half. Two minutes into the second period, Larrechea and Ripol combined to put the ever present Lund in. Courrent kicked a penalty a few minutes later. Deep into final quarter NBE then Stewart were sinbinned. David Tait came on to replace NBE but was immediately substituted by Coutts as a prop was required for a scrum. He'll surely never forget his cameo part! Down to thirteen men the Sharks were unable to prevent Cornwell crossing, but ran out 24-16 winners over the Tigers. The "reserve" side seemed to be definitely settling down as a team with some strong individual performances from the likes of Ripol and Todd.
The final match for which we lost our autumn international players was the Bristol away game. Nacho made an unaccustomed appearance at No 8 as the back row shuffled again. In what was always going to be a difficult fixture, Bristol notched up two early penalties, before Schofield, lurking out wide, turned Larrechea's pass into a try. Strange started to tick off the penalties again, and Perry scored a try in the final quarter. Lilo notched a try for Sale, but it was too little too late, and we lost 14-22. PSA though was pleased with his troops, and a 75% clear-up rate in the autumn internationals was an astonishing improvement over last season. Wasps' loss also allowed us to retain top spot as the international players rejoined, as the club's second peak of the season came into view.
Before then, there was the little matter of our involvement with the AWPG to resolve. The team for Llanelli away contained only two names likely to feature in the following week's Heineken Cup team, Jonesy, who hadn't played a great deal during the AIs, and Elvis, recovered from a minor injury. Another six from the first team squad found their way on to the team list, but the rest were James Wade's Jets, including all seven bench players. Tait finally got to play in a first team shirt. Llanelli were first on the scoreboard with a try by their New Zealand centre King, converted by our old friend Mike Hercus. David Blair had brought his kicking boots and three penalties before halftime brought Sale in at the break leading 9-7. Llanelli picked up the pace after the interval with Hottie Louw scoring a try. Pete Anglesea's injury forced him off on 48 minutes, and without fanfare a Sale folk hero's career was brought to a close. Dwayne Peel's arrival around the same time spurred a further Llanelli effort and the inexperienced Sale eight was forced to cede a penalty try. The sinbinning of Easterby with 7 minutes left sparked a fight back from Sale's inexperienced team and tries by Mayor and Elvis, both converted by Blair brought the Sharks to within a point. The score line of 23-24 highlights an amazing effort by what was in effect the third team against a first choice Llanelli XV - well done to the young men involved.
Seven days later the travelling circus had made its way to Castres for the away leg in our HC pool. Thirteen changes were made to the team as the internationals were reinstated. And Sale were quickly on to the board with a Hodgson penalty. The home side scored the first try with Capo-Ortega peeling off the back of a lineout. Jason's classic outside arc restored the Sale lead at halftime, 10-7. After the break Charlie's chip and catch made inroads, the outside pass to Taylor and inward flick to the Scotland captain allowed Big Tam to canter to the line. Sale gave away penalties and Teulet hauled Castres back to within one point until Charlie's penalty kick stopped the rot. Jonesey's lineout steal was critical and Sale came home with their first away win in France in the Heinie, 24-20!! Despite obvious ring rustiness, a strong-willed performance by the team, especially up front, wore down the Castres side. The celebrations lasted long into the night at Café Cocina.
A week later the same Sale team turned out at EP for the return game with Castres Olympique, who made eight changes. Hodgson and Teulet exchanged penalties, before Charlie eased us away into a six point lead. Roumieu's sin-binning gave the Sale pack the upper hand, and a forty-metre rolling maul allowed Seabass to plunge over before halftime. Seabass featured quickly after the break, seizing on a wild pass from Phil Christophers, and galloped 60 metres to crash over in front of the Cheadle End. Before Castres were restored to full strength, Taylor's break put Jason into position to round the fullback and score our third. The crowd bayed for the bonus point, but it wasn't until the last seconds that Toddy stretched for the line following Mayor's break. Our fourth win (35-3) and second try bonus point in HC Pool 1 put us in with a great chance of qualifying for the quarters for the first time. PSA admitted to playing only at 60% - if he, KJ and the team can produce a 100% performance, then heaven help any team that got in our way!
The Boxing Day special put us back in GP action against the Saints. A full house at EP saw three penalties from Charlie and a perfect cross-kick into the flying Mayor's hands before Saints had shaken off their Christmas pud. They managed just two penalties before the break. The Sebastiens got to work in the second period, Seabass popping the ball off for Nacho to score, and then the replacement Bruno crossing for a try, sandwiching a Myring touchdown. Northampton defended like trojans, belying their lowly league status, and the Sharks were unable to cross for a try bonus point. A winning score of 34-14 but definitely an opportunity missed.
The New Year game took place at the Rec. A strong Sale team took on Guru Brian Ashton's team amid concerns of a mystically-inspired revival. The first half predictably turned into a forward battle, with Bath using their strength up front. The only scores were three penalties and the home side turned round 3-6 in front, despite Sale's slight dominance. Elvis, naturally, broke the deadlock latching onto Charlie's pass to score against his less-than-grateful former team after 4 minutes of the second half. Bath responded with a penalty, but Charlie bestrode his stage, kicking penalties and a delicate crosskick for Frank to gather and feed Jonesy who in turn put in Lund. Another score laid down on the Jets production line. Sale won the trench warfare between the packs, and the defence shut their hosts out - the scoreline of 22-9 in Sale's favour got the year off to a good start.
The next peak in our season started to appear above the horizon, as the final HC pool round got closer. First, though, we entertained Bristol, with our focus on revenge for the defeat during the AIs. A couple of players were rested, but the side looked strong enough to cope with a full strength Bristol. Three points were exchanged early on before Shaun Perry lived up to the Barnes hype by running through the Sale defence to score. Fortunately Charlie had brought his kicking boots, and had tuned up his radar, and Bristol's continual infringing ensured he had enough opportunities to send us into the break 15-14 up. Bristol's defence was unsettling Sale, and progress was slow. Tommy Hayes' arrival saw him gathering a chip and running it in. The pressure was beginning to tell on Bristol, with yellow cards being waved, and as the game entered its final quarter, Martens escaped to score. Charlie's boot continued to swing, pushing us out to a 9 point lead - just as well, as Lemi scored with three minutes left. The final score was 31-29, another close shave. Although failing to quell the Bristolians, Charlie's accuracy pushed us to another win, this one less emphatic than the previous week's. Perhaps a little worrying with those pool games to come.
The last pair of pool games had arrived as the Gwent Dragons came to visit. The pool situation made it vital to rack up the four tries and a bonus. It was perhaps a reflection of the result at Rodney Parade that one or two players were rested and Coutts, NBE and Wiggy came into the team. They certainly didn't weaken the side, and the game was responsible for two of those memorable moments. The first came when Seabass went charging up the undefended blindside of a maul. Shunning the easy option of ploughing into the corner, our "l'homme de la grotte" (Sheri's nomenclature!) stepped in and steam-rollered the Dragons full-back Aled Thomas to score the first try. Charlie kicked a couple, but the Men of Gwent were soon back in it with a try down the right wing for Fussell. Bruno and the large men put pressure on a Dragons scrum, Wiggy pounced on the ball and Charlie passed wide for Cueto to score, his first for the club following something of a drought. Halftime arrived with the job half done, leading 16-5 with two tries.
Shortly after the break, a mis-directed kick was fielded by Larrechea who fed Robinson. Billy Whiz looked to be heading up a blind alley being closed off on the right touchline when a neat pop to Charlie running an inside line broke open the defence. The flyhalf attracted the defenders like wasps to jam before a beautifully timed pass back to the wing found Frank in support for his second. Charlie promptly fell off a tackle on Tuipulotu who sliced through on a diagonal run to score Dragons' second. Charlie soon made amends by cutting through, brushing off Tuipulotu to score his own and the side's fourth try. An easy win by 30-10, topping the pool table and qualifying for the quarters, but would it be enough? The team would have to raise their game on the west coast of Ireland and we needed one more point to be totally sure, either four tries in Limerick, or finishing within seven points of our Irish rivals, to obtain a home quarter final. Alternatively we needed to stop Munster gaining a try bonus point.
Sale's preparation for the meeting of the big boys in Pool 1 hadn't gone as smoothly as it had before the first match. Results had been good, but performance had been a little uneven, though the pack was still going well, and Charlie was in good form. However the early win gained against Munster had perhaps caused us to be a little complacent, and however many times the players were told (and surely they were) about Thomond Park and its atmosphere, the real thing seemed to hit them hard. Perhaps unsurprisingly it was Nacho who lost his cool in the third minute, fists windmilling and out came the yellow card. The game was lost in that moment. Munster had been waiting for us, analysis done, game plan ready. They had targetted Seabass as the main carrier for Sale, and following an O'Connell led drive on him, the predictable rolling maul led to a try for Foley. Elvis went off injured on 25 minutes, and into the cauldron stepped the wild-eyed Taione. While he adjusted to the game, Munster scored their second, swift hands putting Dowling over.
Horan and Jones' fisticuffs put them in the bin, and while they were away, an unfortunate deflection from Charlie put Murphy on the run. His body swerves bamboozled the defence and he squeezed past Jason to score. Halftime score was 9-24, and Sale looked stunned. PSA's words must have rallied the troops, as the defence started to bite in the second half. Sale made four replacements in the pack, with Taione moving to the flank. Yet it seemed that the team were unable to manufacture a clear scoring opportunity. It wasn't until the 82nd minutes that the deadlock was broken, when Payne's dart opened the hole for David Wallace to plunge through. Munster's 31-9 4-try win put them top of the pool with a home quarter, and condemned Sale to a road trip to San Sebastien to meet Biarritz.
The team were unable to reach their third peak of the the season. The signs had been visible for those who searched for them, and the results since Christmas had been less than convincing for a side with ambition. The performances too had not met expectations against sides that were clearly less talented than our own. The mental preparation in addition had evidently been deficient for the Thomond Park game. An extremely disappointing result, and PSA's remark summed it up - "a big kick in the teeth". But if nothing else the management and team had shown they could learn from their mistakes, and this would have added to their experience.
The repercussions of the Munster game rumbled on. Taione, whose unruly demeanour had given cause for concern, was accused of biting Leamy. He first denied and later admitted it. He was subsequently banned for 18 weeks, and in February parted company with the club. His silhouette in recent appearances for Tonga in the Pacific Nations championship would suggest that he is no longer following Nick Johnston's fitness regime.
The pace of the season was unrelenting. A week later saw some battered and bruised bodies at Welford Road (28th January 2006). The entire front row had changed, Schoey came in for Nacho and Todd and Mayor in the backs. Would Sale overcome their frustration and rise to this new GP challenge? It seemed not initially, as both sides seemed to have reaction set in from the week before. Penalties were exchanged and it took Goode's drop goal and the replacement of Billy Whiz by Foden to wake Sale from their coma. After sustained pressure passes by Hodgson and Cueto found the unmarked Shoey, who rumbled over in the corner. The pressure continued, and Jonesy, not to be outdone by his fellow lock, ran a diagonal line to score. Moody, adminstratively returned early from autumn suspension, found his targetting of Seabass drew the ref's attention, and he picked up a yellow card prior to the interval. Sale led 24-9 at the break. In the second half, Leicester found their coherence, and New Zealand referee Honiss kept them in the game as Goode kicked six penalties. Ten minutes from the end, in a rare excursion into Tigers' half, Charlie got one back, but Goode equalized five minutes later. It ended a draw 27-27 all. Sale showed that they had already learned from their Munster experience, and handled the away atmosphere well. The defence had tightened up, keeping Leicester off the try card. And they maintained their position at the top of the GP.
This second period in the season had brought with it a reality check. Peaking at several points in the season is a difficult art to master, particularly if you add in the extra goals set by the international coaches. And from the disappointment at Thomond Park the squad will have learned that extraordinary efforts are required to win, or even prosper in, extraordinary games. We now faced our second international period (the 6N) in the season on a low, a situation that the "reserves" would have to recover from, while their more illustrious team-mates headed for the national squads.