An abysmal first half in which Sale conceded four easily preventable tries to a buoyant Harlequins side proved to be the difference Saturday afternoon that has all but ended any faint hopes the Sharks held of still making the top-six. Despite a spirited second-half fight back that saw Sale score three tries and seventeen points to Harlequins' three, a trifecta of wasted opportunities, needless mistakes and two missed conversations meant Sale's ferocious comeback netted them nothing more than a conciliatory losing bonus point that keeps them, for now, a point above Harlequins in 7th.
On an afternoon where Sale looked to make ammends for a poor loss away to London Irish and keep the pressure up on a Wasps side who now look to have an easy stroll into a European place, there were disappointingly few reasons to be positive as a Sale follower.
One of the few reasons for optimism however was Tom Arscott whose electric running and two well-taken tries lit a fire under Sale for their eventual fight back. Indeed on Saturday afternoon Arscott was far and away Sale's most dangerous attacking threat as he has been all season and his place on the bench to start the game looks a horrendous misstep from coach Steve Diamond as Sale failed miserably to threaten the Harlequins' tryline until Arscott's introduction.
The Sale pack rebounded nicely from a shellacking at London Irish to hold the ascendancy over Quins at scrum time effectively all game. The 'mobile pack' employed worked well and should be considered again for Sale's two remaining Premiership games.
The fact that Sale were able to bounce back after a farcical first half to very nearly steal a win is both extremely encouraging and extremely infuriating. Whilst the Sharks showed excellent spirit, commitment, and, gasp, attacking incisiveness to force the match down to the final play of the game, one wonders how different the result could have been if they hadn't allowed a 16 point deficit at half-time. This was a game Sale lost rather than Harlequins won, although full credit must go to Quins who capitalised on Sale's mistakes mercilessly.
Oh boy where to start.
It's now time for Mike Haley to take a seat on the bench ahead of the clash against Newcastle in a fortnight's time. Haley was at direct fault for at least two tries (and an argument can be made that his thoughtless positioning allowed Danny Care to score Quins' fourth try that would bring Haley's culpability up to three tries) and he failed to remedy those with a below-average performance in attack playing without the incisiveness that has left him in recent weeks. What Haley, as a 20 year-old with little previous Premiership experience has done for Sale this season is nothing short of commendable but it's now time to give him a rest and allow Luke McLean another opportunity in the first team. And for those whom EQP is a concern, counterbalance McLean's inclusion with opportunities for Mark Jennings over the seemingly scrutiny immune centre duo of Sam Tuitupou and Johnny Leota (although I'll admit I thought Leota had a good game yesterday).
Danny Cipriani showed yesterday the risk that comes with the reward of having him as starting fly-half. Not for the first time this season, Cipriani looked overmatched by the opposition's line speed, often delaying a pass to his receiver for far too long and allowing the Quins defence to collapse in on both of them for minimal gain, and he struggled to keep a firm grip on possession, playing the ball too cutely at least three times resulting in a Sale turnover with Sale attacking inside the Quins half. In fact Sale's attack actually became that much more potent when Cipriani was replaced by Joe Ford following Cipriani's kicking of a penalty to touch out on the full which compounded a miserable afternoon for the Sale fly-half.
Sale's lineout accuracy plummeted with Marc Jones starting at Hooker yesterday and improved when Tommy Taylor came on after 45 minutes, imagine that. Taylor needs to start for the rest of the season.
Another anonymous game for Josh Beaumont who finally looks to be running out of steam after a fantastic 'rookie' campaign. Beaumont was unable to exert much pressure against the Quins lineout failing to record a single turnover or lineout steal and his role as a ball-carrying forward seemed diminished playing alongside TJ Ioane. It is imperative that Sale's attacking stratagem going forward makes better use of both Beaumont and Ioane as ball-carriers as yesterday afternoon often found only Ioane being used at any speed to attack the Quins defensive line neglecting Beaumont's obvious talents in that area.
The Sale rolling maul is dead, long live the Sale rolling maul. On multiple occasions yesterday, Sale's tactic of attempting to rumble over the line following a 5m lineout failed spectacularly as twice Quins were able to hold up the maul and win the turnover, putting paid to any attacking momentum Sale had. I'm also unsure why Sale have stopped throwing to the back of the lineout in such a great field position as the momentum gained from the Sale forwards switching round the back and joining the maul at speed as well as the delay the defensive team have in setting up an appropriate maul defence gives Sale a much better chance of scoring than throwing to the first jumper and having 16 players on both sides immediately pile in to a maul adjacent to the touchline.
Probably the worst game of the season for Magnus Lund who failed to make an impact anywhere on the pitch - be it tackling, turning the ball over or as a ball-carrier. In addition, his not-so-subtle attempt to keep a loose ball inside the scrum gifted Harlequins a penalty as Sale had the 5m scrum allowing Quins to safely clear the ball downfield.
I could go on in greater detail but the sooner I forget everything about this game not related to Tom Arscott the better. Yesterday's result makes it four losses in their last five Premiership games for Sale since beating Saracens and with Sale's inclusion in Europe looking to be relegated, at best, to the 7th place play-off and even that being dependent on Edinburgh beating Gloucester in next week's Challenge Cup final there is certainly a sense of pessimism hanging around Sale Sharks this weekend. Sale will now hope to utilise their week off better than they did last week before they take on Newcastle Falcons in a fortnight's time in their brand new away kit (a review of which, done by yours truly, is available here.)
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