Be it not for a fortuitous bounce that allowed Harlequins fly-half Tim Swiel to run in unopposed under the posts late in the first-half of Saturday’s clash at The Stoop, Sale’s now-nine game losing run in all competitions would have ended approximately forty minutes later.
Frustratingly, said bounce did occur, Swiel scored seven points immediately after Charlie Walker’s try had tied the game at 13-apiece and Sale would ultimately leave South-West London on Saturday evening with only a single losing bonus point having been outlasted 29-26.
Despite a much improved offering from Sale who, for the first time in a number of weeks, arrived at an opposition stadia with a comprehensive gameplan which was then by-and-large enacted, a brace of tries from Denny Solomona – including a breath-taking shoelace catch from a TJ Ioane(!) cross-kick that ultimately earned Sale their consolation point – and a further effort from Byron McGuigan (set up by a perfectly weighted Johnny Leota miss pass), Swiel’s 24-point haul would inch Harlequins to a fortuitous, albeit opportunistic, victory.
The return of Will Addison to the starting lineup appeared to add fresh impetus to the oft-maligned Sharks backline with the Cumbrian combining well with Sam James (again at fly-half), Leota, Solomona and McGuigan who all turned in strong individual performances as part of a Sharks’ attack which showed both variety and dynamism with ball-in-hand. Addison also once again performed admirably having been cast into the role of primary placekicker, slotting four of his six attempts at goal. That he missed the two conversions which would have given Sale a narrow 30-29 win speaks more urgently of Sale’s lack of a consistent place-kicker/playmaker combination at fly-half than it does Addison’s ability as a spot starter in the role.
Solomona’s arrival especially has breathed new life into the no-longer quite-as-dormant Sale offense. The New Zealander’s pace out wide has given Sale – regardless of who is at number 10 – the option of kicking the ball wide and behind the defensive line and using Solomona's pace and aerial ability to pressure the covering defenders if he is unable to reclaim the ball himself. It was not always used successfully on Saturday, but it has added another weapon to Sale’s relatively empty arsenal as an effective counter-weapon against defences looking to pressure the Sharks’ inexperienced pairings at half-back and as a free-play tactic with the penalty advantage already secured.
Whilst the Sharks once again showed encouraging signs that the current harrowing losing streak should not make it past January and, if nothing else, picked up a second point in two weeks, this game was lost – or more accurately not won – because of the squad’s bench depth which for the umpteenth season running has once again proven to be an issue.
The Sale scrum, another aspect of the team which has picked up considerably in the last few weeks behind the play of Ross Harrison, Rob Webber and Halani Aulika, simply disintegrated in the second-half when the aforementioned trio left the field costing Sale two penalties and a further six point swing which swung the game back in Harlequins’ favour. James Flynn, Neil Briggs and Kieran Longbottom struggled to cope with their opposition numbers, and behind them, neither Jonathan Mills nor Ben Curry provide the ball-carrying nous and impact to help turn the game in Sale’s favour in the loose. The rumour in today’s (Sunday’s) Rugby Paper, that Sale are eying Japanese Number Eight Amanaki Mafi as a potential recruit would be a significant coup for a team lacking impact players beyond the sixty-minute mark.
Unfortunately Sale, having showed promising signs of a return to domestic form, now find themselves driven back to distraction with an unwelcome European double-header against Toulon and Scarlets. However, should Sale continue their upturn in form, these now otherwise meaningless European fixtures could continue to instil a sense of confidence in a side that is finally beginning to display the ambition and cohesiveness that was so sorely lacking when the nine-game losing streak first began.
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