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View from the south stand: Sale 27 Bristol 10

By Major Bloodnok
December 24 2018

Cliches—high hopes, low expectations—a typical start—a significant binning—turnaround—increasing pressure—a significant result.

“Must win”, “eight-pointer”. These and other clichés were very evident in discussion prior to this match. And, indeed, they were justified: this was a must-win match, the result would have a significant effect on the relative positions of the two teams.
Early afternoon, pre-match, was—compared to last week—positively balmy but, with rain forecast, the chances of a feast of running rugby were looking slim. Add to that that a bottom-of-the-table dogfight was likely to be a hard, slugging affair and it was looking as if a large crowd was going to be treated to a “game for the purists“, as they say.
That it was a bit more entertaining than that is a credit to the teams, who at least tried to put on a show. But, let’s face it, this was a defensive battle first and foremost and silky back skills were definitely at a premium.

As is so often the case, Sale started off on the back foot, and sustained pressure from Bristol give them an early 3-point lead. And so, for 10–15 minutes, it looked as if this was going to be a long afternoon for Sale. But then George Smith left a trailing foot out, tripped JOC (or possibly Ash – I need to check the replay) and saw a flash of yellow inviting him to take a 10-minute breather.
Soon afterwards, Rob du Preez restored balance to the force with a simple penalty. Just before Smith’s return, concerted Sale pressure brought its reward as Faf made a dart for the line and was brought down just short. RdP (JLdP?) followed up to the ruck and flipped the ball out to Denny, who burrowed in to score a real forward’s try wide out right.
Eight points from the sin-bin, so Sale came out of that in credit, and two more penalties meant a healthy 14–3 lead going into half-time.
The second half was mostly a tale of increasing Sale dominance, two more penalties, including a wonderful long-ranger from around half-way, to go 20–3 up, a well-taken riposte from Bristol to bring it back to 20–10 and a glimmer of hope for them and a final piece of magic from Wilf as he grounded the ball on the try line a nanosecond before his boot hit the touchline. A second stunning kick from Rob du Preez to nail the conversion and Sale had completed two of the three tasks for the afternoon: win and deny Bristol a point. Only a try bonus could have improved on the afternoon’s haul.
After the weekend’s other action, that win moved Sale two places up the table to 9th and, more importantly, with a bit of daylight starting to appear between them and the chasm below 12th.

The game as a whole was pretty much all about defence. During their early period of dominance, Bristol looked to be putting together some slick forwards play, with lots of passing and offloading. It wasn’t long, though, before you noticed that there was little variety and what looked impressive at first glance was almost entirely passes to a man who would then run behind another man and pass to a man who would run behind another man who would…
Once Sale had clocked that, Bristol lost the momentum as Sale’s defence restricted Bristol supply of wide ball, essentially nullifying the threat of their backs.
George Smith remained a nuisance, though, and it’s significant that Sale really started to take control in the 10 minutes he was off the field.
Faf was his usual sniping self, at the centre of everything and tackling men twice his size. Du Preez (R) had a good game with the boot, but still lacks something as a distributor. That’s most likely down to him being still new to the club and not having a particularly settled centre pairing. Still, though, at the moment I rate him a slight net loss on AJ, but that may change as he gets more used to the players and options around him.
The rest of the back line never, I felt, really got out of second gear. Ashton was mostly anonymous, apart from one blistering run in the second half. Solomona got his try but otherwise neither he nor Horse saw very much of the ball. Both JOC and Sam showed flashes of utter class, but mostly got caught caught up in the defensive battle going on.
The forwards, on the other hand, were immense throughout. Harrison, Webber and John played the full game and finished seemingly as fresh as they started, if the way the pounded the Bristol scrum was anything to go by. Josh and Phillips bossed the lineout and breakdown. If we thought that replacing Phillips with Bryn’s beard would leave us a bit lightweight at the scrum, we were quickly disabused of that notion.
And what can you say about the back row? Jean-Luc Picard du Preez, Jonno and Curry (T & B) were the sea wall against which the Bristol waves broke impotently. Tom in particular played as if he hadn’t just come back from several weeks off injured and Jonno continues to pile on his impressive tackle stats. I remember memes about Seabass when he first arrived (brick walls, metal skeletons, etc). I think we should be dusting some of those off and pasting Jonno’s face over them.
Then there’s Jean-Luc. What an inspired signing. Give him a season and I think he’d outdo even Jonno’s stats. MoM whatever the official decision was.
So, to sum up. We desperately needed that. It wasn’t pretty but, by the gods, it was effective and, after last week, a much-needed fillip. Based on this performance, I do not fear any of the bottom seven at home and would fancy us against several of them away.

The next two games, though, are going to be tricky and could undo much of the recent good work. Gloucester away is always going to be a problem, but we’ve beaten them in the past and we have to believe that we can do it again.
After that, Sarries at home. Friday night. On telly. Still not confident of this one, which makes anything we can get at Gloucester (even a losing binus point) doubly important. Still, hopes springs eternal and all that, so I’ll be there on the 4th as, I hope, will several thousand others making lots of noise…

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