Sale's best performance in two months ensured the return fixture of their home-and-home series with Saracens in Champions Cup Pool 3 was a far more competitive outing than last week's 50-3 loss at Allianz Park, however three yellow-cards to Rob Webber, Bryn Evans and TJ Ioane undermined an encouraging outing which disappointingly ended with Saracens as comfortable 24-10 winners, courtesy of 19 points from Owen Farrell and a late Nathan Earle try.
Unfortunately, as convenient as it would be to blame referee Andy Brace for the Sharks' loss - which extremely flattered an only marginally superior Saracens side - upon review Sale did proverbially shoot themselves in the foot, the only real oversight from the officials being the lack of punishment for Owen Farrell's late/in-the-air/no-arm tackle on Mike Haley directly proceeding Ioane's sin-binning.
Sale were warned repeatedly regarding maul infringements before Webber intentionally brought a Saracens rolling maul down in the first-half, and as asinine as the rule is, Evans's knock-on did not constitute a deliberate attempt with reference to the letter of the law. Ioane's penalisation meanwhile was a legitimate dangerous, no-arm tackle even if the Samoan's devastated reaction on the sideline indiciated there was not a semblence of maliciousness in his actions.
Farrell meanwhile can consider himself extremely lucky given that his equally clumsy tackle could have been flagged as any combination of a high tackle, late tackle, or a dangerous tackle with no attempt to wrap the arms. That is not to say that Farrell's (non)-castigation was the sole reason why Saracens left the AJ Bell as clear winners on Sunday but it did compound the frustration emanating around the stadium given that until the latter two yellow-cards, the Champions Cup tie had been an enthralling back-and-forth contest.
Despite having all-but-been eliminated already from the competition, Sale rebounded from a perilously poor run of form in recent weeks to produce a sterling, cohesive and ambitious performance one that at times looked dangerously close to unsettling the current Premiership and European champions - even one packed with a plethora of international superstars.
The Sharks' backline - led by Josh Charnley and a far more distributive AJ MacGinty -looked adventurous and incisive, combining set-plays with some opportunistic line-breaks and broken-field running. Despite the greasy conditions, Sale's ball-playing skills appared to return with aplomb, Tom Arscott and Sam James combining superbly to feed Bryn Evans for the Sharks' late, conciliatory touchdown.
Most pleasingly, however was that it appeared the advice dispensed on this very site earlier in the week has been taken on-board by the Sharks' coaching staff with MacGinty twice punching kicks cross-field for debutant Denny Solomona to race onto, even if the New Zealander ultimately couldn't quite gather the loose ball(s). Regarding Solomona on his union debut, despite having few chances to show what he can offer ball-in-hand, the 23-year-old looked effervescent throughout; his pace and aerial ability already proving to be attributes the Sale attack will look to exploit with regularity, and his defence at an impressive standard for the 15-man code. Overall, Sale looked refreshingly unpredictable with ball-in-hand against Saracens and against less stringent opposition, will have no trouble keeping the scoreboard ticking over.
Elsewhere, the Sale Monster Pack™ finally reared its head, buoyed by outstanding performances in particular from Ross Harrison and Halani Aulika, who combined twice to push the Saracens' scrum off its own ball. For pehaps the first time this year both the Sale pack and backline appeared to be clicking along with the usually efficient lineout, only for the former to find itself reduced to seven men for over a third of the game.
Saracens were still the superior side whose clinical territorial control of the game began to emerge late in the first-half and who would have been further clear by sixty minutes had it not been for two uncharacteristic Farrell misses off the tee, but given the emphatic nature of Sale's last two results to Saracens (13-28 and 50-3), this was a result which showed some promising signs for Sale's season.
To run Saracens this close (and to have been in with a genuine chance of snatching an unlikely result had a) the ball bounced more kindly for Solomona with the Sharks down 9-3 and b) the team not been shown three yellow cards) suggests the team may have finally turned a corner and found a starting XV capable of overturning a currently volatile Northampton Saints side next Friday at Franklin's Gardens.
Honourable Mentions: Andrei Ostrikov, Magnus Lund, Cameron Neild, James Mitchell.
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