December 19 2005
After a brilliant, boozy weekend in France, it was time for the return game. Three out of 3, four points ahead of Munster - a bonus point win semed a must. Could they do it? Would Castres raise their game. Snaderson warms his hands on something soft and comes up with this report.
Driving back from work I had butterflies fluttering in my stomach – was I that nervous about the outcome of the game? It could have come from the anticipation of one of the biggest games at Edgeley Park for a long time – win and we’re in the box seats for qualification for the HEC quarter finals. Discussing it with Jill we agreed that a bonus point would be very handy in keeping out of reach of Munster, but that the first priority was the win. We changed into our Sale shirts and piled on the layers before heading out into the cold, eager to get stuck in.
Our first port of call was the Edgeley Park shop. Jill, a big fan of the last Uncovered calendar, urgently needed to pick up this year’s. We walked in to find Brian Kennedy holding court, trying on a coat, joking with the staff and doing a bit of Christmas shopping, or so it looked. Jill and I had a look through the merchandise and bumped into the Riggers, full of beans as ever, and the charming CheadleEnder. Inevitably we had the obligatory conversation about Munster tickets and what our chances were of getting some.
Still early, we walked over to the Royal Oak. It was slowly filling up but we found some seats where we were soon joined by a couple of young lads – part of a big family group who had come in to eat. The great thing about the Oak is the friendly atmosphere; you always get talking to the fans who come in. The lads were no exception to this and we had a good chat about the team and the match, while Jill and I eyed up their pies and chips. The lads were succeeded by some chatty blokes looking through the programme. We discussed with them the merits of layering in keeping out the cold before putting all our gear on and joining the throng making its way to Hardcastle Road.
For this game, we were at the unfamiliar end of the Printerland stand, towards the Cheadle End, which meant I missed IndepenDance’s routine, but should have meant we got to see the boys warming up. Unfortunately we were just too late and they were leaving the pitch when we came in.
The tension was building, the crowds kept flowing in, the smell of hot pies drifted across from the bar. Again we discussed the points situation in the pool – what would Munster have to do, could we get a bonus point, should the main focus be the win, what would the changed Castres (or Cast-Rez as the announcer had it) side be capable of? The cheerleaders lined up, the Jaws music played teasingly for a moment, Castres ran out to polite applause and stood in a huddle – perhaps for warmth. At last the boys ran out, looking rather smart in their new black and red kit, with everyone looking nicely keyed-up.
The half got off with a roar, Castres kicking off into our corner. Immediately the bloke behind us launched into a commentary on ball retention and support play for the benefit of his enthusiastic, if sceptical, son (‘it doesn’t work out that way when we play,’ he responded to some explanation of attacking strategy). The forty minutes passed very quickly, though the scoring was slow. Sale were thoroughly dominant, controlling territory and possession, but couldn’t seem to find a way through the Castres defence. There were some nice moves – a Charlie chip-through quickly supported by the rampaging Maggie Lund; Robbo’s willingness to take the ball in hand rather than kick out of defence. It was worrying when Quates went off with an injury, but Chris Mayor, on excellent form, would prove himself an able substitute. Eventually, after a maul that marched all the way from the ten metre line, Seabass was driven over for the first try, making the scoreline look a more respectable 16 – 3 at half time. The boys left the field leaving us confident that we could win the game.
Our seats on row A proved a bit of a mixed blessing. We were close to the action and saw a good bit of it right in front of us, but the walkway was constantly full of passers-by and beer sellers blocking our view, though we did get to see various Sharks luminaries: Niels, Nathan, James Wade, Swanny barking into a phone, Stan still struggling a bit climbing stairs, and the lovely Catherine Gardner. There was just time to do my own passing-by before getting back to my seat, beer in hand, to cheer the boys back on.
The crowd had been a little quiet in the first half – perhaps reflecting the low scoring – although there had been a few drum-led chants of Say-ul. When the second half started we were soon given something to cheer about. Seabass intercepted well inside the Sale half and clattered through the defence, stepping out on a lolloping run and comfortably outpacing the Castres cover to touch down under the posts. The Cheadle End, treated to a spectacular display right in front of them, went wild.
It wasn’t much later before try three arrived with a strong break from Tinker feeding Robbo in lightning-fast support. Jason casually rounded the fullback to score again beneath the posts. As a supporter you don’t think at the time about all the noise you’re making, but afterwards I noticed my voice was a little croaky. It’s probably moments like Jason’s and Chabal’s tries that do it.
The crowd was thoroughly geed up by now and were baying for the bonus point try. Castres made Sale work for it though and they put up an incredible display of cussed defence that kept the game in the wrong half for us. On a foray into the Castres half, Charlie set up a beautiful move – showing how much he’s relishing running with the ball – that we had close-up view of: a pass to Elvis and a run-around behind to take a pop return pass and a sprint towards the line. Unfortunately it broke down but we were sure that something would have to give eventually. My hopes sank a little as Elvis came off and we ended up with the unusual strategy of playing four front rowers. I started to resign myself to taking just the winning points but Chris Mayor had other ideas. A super- fast run broke the French defence and Robert Todd was on hand to support and to just make it to the line with a man round his ankles. The crowd roared. Jill and I cheered and shouted and hugged. What a result. There was still time on the clock but the referee clearly saw that all meaningful play was over and blew up for full time.
We walked through the crowd to give the boys the round of applause they certainly deserved. Charlie was grinning like a Cheshire cat, PSA looked gratified, and Swanny couldn't wait to light up a celebratory fag. We walked out into the starry night, elated to have all our wishes fulfilled – except for not winning the Shirt Off Your Back again – and joined the masses flooding away from the ground. It felt like a cup victory, or that we had actually qualified for the quarters. Whether that comes to pass or not – there’s still work to do – it felt like Sale were unbeatable, unassailable, and nothing could stop us now.