It was Saints biggest ever Premiership points comeback but there are Sale fans today who are shrugging their shoulders, stroking their beards and grumbling about red cards, yellow cards and penalty tries.
Sale and England centre Manu Tuilagi was shown red in the 13th minute for throwing a fending forearm into the throat of Tommy Freeman and now that the dust has settled there are some who would say that was the key moment of the encounter.
It was an exuberant offence rather than malicious and was notable for the way both Manu and Saints players went out of their way to reassure each other no offence was meant and none was taken.
From that point Sale unleashed a first half performance of such smart energy and ferocity that it ended 7-24 in favour of the visitors despite the absence of Manu watching disconsolately from the touchline. For him a red means some kind of ban, which means his Six Nations chances with England are compromised and at the age of 31 who knows what that means for his international career.
The truth is, that extra man advantage after a sending off does not work as it might in soccer where the extra space can be exploited almost immediately. Sale’s powerful forwards ensured it took all Saints manpower to stop their charges or get the ball back from our own attempts to smash through their iron defensive wall.
Yes there was a vulnerability there waiting to be found but Sale did very well at making sure that quick clean ball Saints needed to take advantage just wasn’t coming.
And if cards were an issue for Sale in this game, injuries were the issue for Saints. One minute after the loss of Tuilagi for instance, Saints captain George Furbank hobbled off the field with a leg injury depriving the home side of not only the first choice fullback but also the emergency cover at 10. Sale notched up two yellow cards in the second half and were reduced to 13 men at one point but after injuries to Fin Smith and Tom James, Saints found themselves with Rory Hutchinson at fly-half and Callum Braley at scrum-half. Mike Tyson used to say that everyone has got a plan until they get punched in the face.
While Sale had to back their physicality under the pressure of reduced manpower, Saints had to back their talent pool to ensure that their replacements brought the attacking threat required to overhaul the enormous Sharks lead. It worked.
Dave Ribbans was awarded Player of the Match by commentator Austin Healey who had been revving himself up to hand it to Tom Curry just minutes before the final whistle. That was how close this contest was.
The list of Saints notables is long: a superb shift from Dingwall; Collins smelling space like a Shark smells blood; Proctor, Ramm and Freeman making yards against the tide; Hutchinson and James for being beloved by the god of kicking; Braley for expecting the unexpected like only someone who has played 9 for Italy can.
|Carries||Augustus 16||Carpenter 16|
|Metres||Freeman 69||Carpenter 148|
|Tackles||Moon 13||Ashman/Curry 15|
You can look at rugby as a game that is about winning big smashes and recycling the ball out to the fast guys while the opposition defence is still picking itself up in a daze. You can have all the fancy moves in the world but they are no good to you if you are stuck under several hundred kgs of Shark. You can also look at it as a game where a lot of calories are expended on shock and awe collisions when the ultimate mission in any rugby game is to hit space, not people. That trade-off between big guy and little guy energy is the ying and yang at the heart of rugby union that makes it such a compelling sport.
Sale’s fiery on the edge style gained them points but lost them manpower, we lost playmakers but we had more playmakers and by the end of the game more energy. I could make a Second World War analogy about tanks running out of fuel but that would be a bit tasteless and casts Sale in the role of the baddies. Not even their brilliant General George Ford could save them. Just saying.
Even with the cards at home in front of a rapturous crowd this win felt like an immense achievement. That is partly respect due to Sharks who many would have expected to find a way to muscle through anyway. But it is also partly due to that win against Leicester a couple of weeks back – a similar type of challenge that might have gone a different way for Saints a couple of seasons ago. Saints fans have been watching their team almost do things like this for a while, now they are doing it.
We are used to being cast as the underdog and right now Saints might be in that sweet spot before everyone else realises that’s not true. If you look at the current Premiership Team Stats, Saints are in the top two for every category (things like most metres gained, most tries etc) apart from Turnovers Won. Keep it under your hat for now, but we might be sneaking up on something here.
Pictures by Dave Ikin