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2005-2006 season review Pt. 1

By pitprop
July 20 2006

In these dog days of summer, it is with real nostalgia (and pride) that this reporter looks back to the season recently ended, the best season Sale have ever had. While not appreciating that fact as we wended our way through the season, it really struck home to your correspondent at Twickenham.

Summer 2005 saw us back in the Heineken Cup, qualifying both as Challenge Cup winners and on merit. The club had a settled squad, with a pack to be reckoned with. Recruitment hadn't been the flustered affair of the previous season, when PSA and Kingsley worked their contacts as hard as possible to fill out the roster. More measured in preparation for this season Mark Taylor, Elvis Seveali'i and Epi Taione were selected from the shelves marked "Centres", while Daniel Larrechea and Valentin Courrent were brought in for their place-kicking ability, for their ability to take over Charlie's role, and for their versatility. Lionel Faure and Nathan Bonner-Evans brought additional ballast and ball-carrying to the pack, and last but not least Nick Wakley added choice to the back three selection. From these newcomers Taylor, Elvis and Larrechea rapidly became first choice, while Courrent, Faure and NBE provided excellent back-ups when the big boys went to play for their countries.

PSA took his squad off to the south of France again for pre-season training - seems to me to be callous on the players, but must be something to do with Phillippe's homesickness! But it certainly appears to work for the team, as without their Lions, a number of combinations underwent experiment in the sun. First game was against Perpignan on 6th August 2005, in the Stade Aime Giral bearpit. And Sale came out as winners, with Magnus Lund scoring the first try of the season and the fiery Oriol Ripol picking up the first yellow card. Perpignan scored a try of their own, but Nacho and Nick Wakley added one each, and the Frenchmen Larrechea and Courrent hammered the kicking nails into the Blood and Gold coffin. Sale with an away win by 30-7 at a venue where they are notoriously hard to come by. Those looking to excuse Perpignan's fall from grace explained that Sale were at a better place in their preparation for the season. Was that really the case when the Top 14 was about to commence, while we had four weeks to go to the start of the GP?

Other rationalisations put Sale's players down as motivated, aggressive, physical and above all fresh. All good omens for the long season ahead.

The following Wednesday we met Castres Olympique in Argeles-sur-mer, one of the teams we were to face in the Heineken Cup group. Both teams were out to lay down a marker for the battles to come. The first meeting in the series was a tight affair, with Sale squeezing home 26-23. The scrummage and defence (with Elvis and Taylor prominent) were put under pressure by Castres. Day and Jonesy made hay in the line-out though, and tries came from Hanley and Anglesea (just like days of yore!). The squad flew home one up in that particular series, with two to play.

The benefit of this sojourn in the sun was obvious - two wins, the team had great spirit and high morale, and there was opportunity for the lesser lights, new arrivals and maturing youngsters in the squad to stake their claim in what is a highly competitive group of players. One or two of the watching Lions must have mentally been looking over their shoulders. Certainly a new centre partnership was born in the shadow of the Pyrenees in Seveali'i and Taylor, while the sight of the two Frenchmen vying for the No 10 spot as Charlie's back-up must have shocked those Sale fans used to more ad-hoc flyhalf arrangements when England came calling.

The next stop on the pre-season trail was in Edinburgh on Friday 19th August. In the thinly-populated and echoing Murrayfield, Hodgson, Cueto, White, Bruno and Chabal all added their nous and experience for a game which stretched them more than expected. An early interception try from Wakley should have calmed nerves, but Faure's yellow card led to a try by the Gunners. Sale's response was swift with a seven-man drive allowing Courrent to pirouette over, and the Sharks went into the break leading 18-17. Edinburgh pressurised the 8-9-10 axis and Courrent, playing at 9, found the links with the other two difficult to maintain. White began to influence the game, with his massive hits causing turnovers. From a penalty line-out, the pack drove Bruno over for a try. Gunners came back with a second try from Dewey who blasted through the midfield defence, for a second time! Sale were glad to hang on to a 25-24 win, with Lobbe's boot planting a penalty deep into the sparse crowd to end the game.

The next game was Doncaster at home on Friday 26th August. The choice of a newly-promoted National Division One side for our final pre-season was perhaps an under-powered one, but as PSA said later, it is difficult to get teams to come to Sale. Kingsley's contacts no doubt secured the game, but it always looked as though the Sharks would savage their opposition, and so it proved. Chabal went over in the second minute, and was followed by a procession of Lund, Elvis, Sheridan, Cueto for a halftime lead of 31-0. Todd, Elvis (2 to complete his hat trick) and Charlie completed the try-scoring to win 59-0. While never going to stretch Sale, this fixture allowed them to tighten up in areas where previously we had been lacking a little. The defence closed Doncaster out, while the scrum went well against a heavy pack. Players looked to be running into form, in particular Charlie Hodgson, whose presence and direction would be vital to the team throughout the season. Discipline needed attention, as too many penalties were being given away.

Pre-season was a success with four wins, including an important victory in Perpignan. But two of the wins were by slim margins, and the Doncaster game was hardly of the level of the main event, which was about to start. Yet importantly, these wins had come without the first choice team being on parade, as internationals were rested after the summer tours. Combinations had been tried and tested, and in some cases, placed on the back burner. Players who perhaps would only have walk-on parts during the season were given an opportunity to forge partnerships with both first choice and reserve players. And what was apparent was that we now had sufficient players of the right calibre to compete strongly while their more illustrious colleagues were away on international duties in the Autumn and in the 6 Nations.

And so we set off on our journey through the Guinness Premiership. The supporters did not know it yet, but the team had set as their objective, the winning of this title, as well as reaching the quarter-final of the Heineken Cup. So there must have been some tension in the team in the build-up to the first game. And which little imp at the Premiership had given us Squeaky's Mob as our first fixture, at EP as well? The Albanian flags were taken out of storage early in this season!

The sight of a certain Mr Wilkinson warming up brought the expectation of a contest with Charlie, although he started on the bench. Three debutantes started for Sale (Larrechea "Le Jim" at fullback, and the new centre pairing of Elvis and Mark Taylor) and two more made the bench (Courrent replacing Wiggy on 80 mins, and Faure not used). Sleeping summer Lions were aroused from their dens in spite of the RFU directive. And the game was as tense, and as seesaw-like as these encounters usually are. Charlie's penalty was answered by Burke's try. Sale responded with a try for Cueto and went in at the break leading 10-7. After the restart Elliot scored against his former team and Charlie's kicked two penalties in response. Wilko kicked a penalty of his own, but his rustiness showed when his poor pass was worked to Charlie who hit the gas to outstrip his Lions rival for the try - one of those moments which will stay long in the memory banks! Big Tam picked up a yellow card and shortly after Jonny dropped a goal. Deep into injury time Elliot crashed over again, presenting Wilko with an opportunity to convert and win the game.

With most supporters unable to breathe, the ball slid across the face of the posts - a W, by the narrowest of margins 26-25!

Tight finishes had already become a feature of the season, and another was to feature the following Saturday, the 10th September. Off to cider country to Castle Grim, to say "Hello!" to "There's only one Bryan Redpath!". In torrential rain, Seabass was first over the tryline, followed later in the first half by Cueto's ninth consecutive try in league fixtures! An erratic Mercier could only manage two penalties in response. Following the break, Daniel Larrechea booted two penalties while Mercier picked up another. Referee Roy Maybank then decided to imprint his authority on the game, binning Jonesy and Sheri on 80 minutes, and then adding 10 minutes of injury time until he felt sufficiently confident to award a penalty try against Sale! Converted, it left a scoreline of 18-21, a loss sufficient to drop us to 8th in the table.

Back home to Friday night rugby, and the NotNots came to call (love that nickname, and for those who haven't heard it "Not London and Not Irish").

Sharks fans were hoping that Everitt's name wouldn't feature as their executioner again. When, within 6 minutes our French connections had created a try for Billy Whiz, the portents looked good. It wasn't until the second half that Sale really opened up, with tries for Chabal, Larrechea, and Charlie's skip pass opening up the gap for Cueto to score his record-breaking tenth consecutive try in consecutive matches. The pack went well against Irish in both tight and loose, although the line-out stuttered for the second game in succession. And the signs were about that the backline were starting to get their act together. A bonus-point win then, 29-3.

Jason Robinson announced his retirement from International rugby, which would allow him more time to spend with his young family. The spin-off for Sale was that we now had a captain whose focal point was the club, which could only improve the continuity of the side, particularly for the international periods. The inaugural team to feel the exclusive focus of Billy Whiz was London Sale on, Sunday 25th September, at a venue where we'd never won. A settled-looking side took the field at Vicarage Road. First blood went to the hosts as centre Sorrel found a gap in the centre defences with Elvis on the deck. Elvis made amends by responding in kind prior to halftime.

Seabass' irresistible running broke the deadlock after the break, quickly followed by Elvis' second, and Sale were cruising. Sarries responded with substitutions and tries from Chesney and Powell. Charlie pressed the accelerator again and created one of our tries of the season, exchanging passes with Frank and Wiggy for an 80 metre score. Scarborough put down another for the home side in the dying minutes. The stats will show a try bonus point win of 40-32 with Charlie's boot the apparent difference. It was much more than that, with the lineout back on track, and the backs scoring tries. The London branch's four in response will have livened up defence training in the following week. The funbus back up the motorway was a happy place.

And so to a break from league action, as the Anglo-Welsh Powergen Cup hove into view. PSA, with his eyes firmly on the big prizes, made 12 changes to the starting line-up for the trip to Kingston Park, another of our bogey grounds (in fact the only one left, now!!) Lionel, Nathan Bonner-Evans and Nick Wakley made their first starts for the club, a number of players came back from injury and a number of bench occupiers made the line-up. They met a Falcons side much closer to their first choice, who were two quick tries to the good. Larrechea's three first-half penalties were Sale's only scores, and Wilkinson's introduction after the break saw two more tries for Newcastle's total when Carter and NBE were sin-binned, and another late on for a 9-35 defeat.

A week later saw the Tykes making the trip across the M62 in this new Cup. In the build-up to the first peak of the season Turner, Lund and Chabal were added to the pack while the experience of Taylor and Robinson was brought into the backs. This combination proved far too strong for an injury-ridden Leeds and Toddy went over on 4 minutes. Ripol soon added another before young scrumhalf Care pulled one back for the Tykes. Lionel Faure scored on his second start and then Jason's dancing run brought a second for the Spaniard. Just before the break, the unlucky Carter sustained another shoulder injury and shortly after, Bruno steered a forward drive over. Tries continued to come, with Ripol grabbing a third and Stan going over in the last play of the game. The loss at Newcastle had dented any chance of progressing in this competition, particularly with an away trip to Stradey Park due in December.

Suddenly, almost breathlessly, the first big games of the season were upon us. Back into league action and Wasps came to visit Edgeley Park. The selector's wheel rotated again and those rested for the AWPG returned to strengthen the side for the visit of the champions. In an electric atmosphere it was immediately apparent that the team had stepped up a gear. A game plan centred on our forward power matched our grizzlies with theirs, and the Sale pack came out on top. Forcing a string of penalties out of the Wycombe-based team, Charlie put in a nerveless display with the boot, kicking four, two with Jason White yellow-carded, for a 12-3 halftime lead. Against the run of play Wasps scored first in the second half when Lewsey nipped past a ruck for a try. Two more penalties restored the balance, and Seabass and Co. had held sway over Lol's men 18-10. A roar greeted the final whistle and we were top of the table, sending out notice that we meant business this season.

An even bigger game followed as Munster visited EP for the first game in our HC Pool. The tension crackled round the ground as it filled up. And both sides served notice of the game plans with the flyhalves exchanging deep kicks in greasy conditions within minutes of the start. Charlie started the scoring with a penalty following Jonesy's lineout steal and O'Gara responded in kind. Charlie took his second opportunity as well. Munster started a rolling maul and Nacho dragged it down, spending ten minutes in the bin. Munster went again and Sheahan scored. Sale's seven men knuckled down to it and gave away no more, Charlie clawing another three points back before the half. After the break, it was O'Gara who scored first with a penalty, but this seemed to spur the Sale pack on, forcing Munster to handle on the deck. With Sheahan binned, Charlie kicked the points. When Munster put into their own 5-metre scrum under pressure, the ball squirted out of the back and Martens was first there.

Sale's kicking game and pressure up front drove Munster back. In one of their rare periods on the attack occurred one of the 'magic moments' of the season. Seabass' shattering tackle on Pucciarello coughed the ball into Charlie's hands. His instantaneous reading of the situation caused him to put in a kick, Jason beat his men, toed it on and scored in the corner, a killer blow forcing Munster out of bonus point territory. With Seabass demanding and Charlie delivering, three points from a late penalty, Sale won 27-13. It was a fantastic win for Sale, laying down a marker that in this competition we meant business too.

The trip to Newport for the away Dragons game, was an altogether more low key affair. Sale never reached the intensity of the previous two games but never needed to. Charlie's boot continued to drive them on, his up-and-under and subsequent follow-up and charge-down responsible for the first try. Sale scored the second too, with Jason's floated pass landing in Frank's grateful hands for a stroll over on the right. And the third when Charlie's miss-pass bounced kindly into Larrechea's hands for the fullback to dive over for a halftime lead of 21-6. Despite having two men in the bin after the break, it was the Dragons who scored the next try, spinning the ball wide from a scrum under their posts. Morgan and Wyatt took it on for the winger to chip, catch and score. Charlie's boot wrested control back for Sale, and a rolling maul took Nacho, to his delight, to his first HC try with Sale. Elvis' late hand off of Warlow created the space for him to cross unopposed. An away win and a try bonus point, plus the knowledge that the team could raise their game, play it tight, or open it up a little more in the fixtures that counted.

With the end of October, the Autumn Internationals loomed large, and it was time to see if PSA's acquisitions would improve our results with the internationals away. And away they went in their droves, Charlie, Frank and Jonesy to England, Nacho to the Pumas, Bruno to France and somewhere in there, Elvis and Epi played once each for their respective sides.

For the four wins in October, PSA won the Guinness Premiership Director of Rugby award of the month (awarded late in November). There is no doubt that the squad had been successfully brought to a peak for this period, with a "reserve" side seeing off Tykes in the Powergen, and the first choice side seeing off Wasps in the GP (to stay top) and Munster and Newport in the HC.

Sale were well placed to continue their assault on the silverware. Onward and upward.

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