Tigers responded from their record defeat 7 days ago with a patchy display but one that importantly got the win 30-23. Let us get it right straight from the off this was not a classic Tigers display. The second half was especially poor. But a defeat would have left us 8th at best and now we are 5th.
2 points off the play offs but 13 back from Northampton in 2nd. It will take an almighty collapse from either Saints or Saracens for Tigers to sneak another home semi final.
This game raised more questions than answers: has Dan Bowden quietly become our midfields vital cog? Why is drawing a man so difficult? Why do you give such a big crowd and big occasion such a poor referee?
In the first half Tigers were pretty good. We dominated possession and territory. The first try came from some genius play by the Welsh wizard Williams at fly half. His sharp footwork cut the Sale line and his smart off load let Ed Slater power over.
A Sale offside let Williams put the Tigers 10-0 up before Adam Thompstone made it 17-0. Sam Tuitupou had been sin binned for an off the ball incident with Owen Williams and the man advantage told quickly.
Marcos Ayerza made good yards up the middle before Dan Bowden had looked to have butchered it with a miss pass when simple hands should have done. But Thompstone squeezed into the corner, and after a lengthy review, the try was given by the TMO. Bowden’s blushes were completely spared when Williams stepped up to nail the touchline conversion.
17-0 up after 23 minutes; it is frankly unacceptable to not only fail to gain a try bonus point but also allow what is a close rival, at this stage of the season, a losing bonus point too.
Tigers were still rampant at this point but the passes stopped sticking. Thompstone and Waldrom contrived to butcher a brilliant chance down the left hand touchline after more exciting build up play. Williams then put Thompstone clear to the line again. In what is essentially a 3 way audition for the two wing spots Thompstone did not cover himself in glory with these two muffed chances. I can’t be sure if Benjamin would have got them but the second one I really think he would have.
The old school Sale cynicism was to rear its head from here on in. Taking advantage of what was a very naive and very inexperienced referee Sale pulled every trick in Steve Diamond’s well thumb copy of “Practical Cheating for the Modern Player”.
Carley in only his 6th Premiership game was taken in hook line and sinker when Sale’s front row stepped back on engagement from a 5m scrum earning them the clearing free kick. Tigers were sniffing blood after forcing Sale over their own line and this was a big momentum swing.
When they tried it again in the second half he was wise to it this time and threatened Henry Thomas, on as a replacement for the slightly better Moldovan Vadim Cobilas, with a yellow card. I would be tempted to sin bin the entire front row for shenanigans like that. It is not like a positive penalty where you have tried to push them back but ultimately failed, or tried to steal the ball but been knocked off your feet, it is just trying to mug off the referee with no risk to yourself.
Before half time Williams and Macleod swapped penalties to leave the score 20-6.
After the break Dan Cole showed an often uncredited side of his game with a lovely inside line and powerful carry. It was somewhat spoiled when Williams spilled Ben Youngs ankle high pass. Youngs was his usual mixed bag of sheer brilliance, menace and occasional move stalling horrific passing.
It sort of worked out as Tigers work in the scrum gained a 3 point reward for dead eye goal kicker Williams to slot.
But Sale know how to win at Welford Road, ride your luck and take your chances in attack whilst cynically cheat and slow down play in your own half. It is always the same script and always very frustrating to watch when they get it “right”.
In the second half they did just that scoring brilliant break away tries, often with a hint of controversy in the initial break, then managing to play one or two phases in defence before giving away a penalty then killing momentum with a nicely timed injury.
The two tries were very similar in that they came from around half way starting down the left then switching to be scored in the right. First it was Mark Cueto then it was Charlie Ingall after a nice break by James Gaskell. Much like the referee I will be surprised if any of the TV pundits bother to see the massive block thrown by Tommy Taylor in the build up to the second try.
In between it was typical Tigers imprecision, referee inaction and Sale stalling. Tigers could and should have put the game to bed with a push over try from a line out but mystifyingly it fell short a yard from the line. Amazing that isn’t it? Almost as if a Sale player had ran right round the side and tackled the man whilst his mate dragged the maul down.
But Mr. Carley saw nothing and Tigers compounded the referee’s mistake with a weak knock on in contact by Jamie Gibson.
With Ingall’s try then bringing the score to 23-20 all thoughts of bonus points had gone from our minds. It was just win baby.
At this point Williams, after his bright start, was showing signs of a lack of patience. It can be frustrating when we get out of sorts, noticeably when Bowden was removed with a concussion (worryingly the 2nd of his season so far), but patience and making the opposition make tackles works. It is our standard tactic and eventually, like a dam blocking a river, the defence bursts and we can flow through for the try.
It was hardly the worst fault for a 21 year old to have but certainly it shows room for improvement.
With 12 minutes to go, and after one of Williams kicks lacking patience, Tigers again forced a 5m scrum. As mentioned above Sale tried every trick in the book to clear their lines. Reset at least 8 times the series of scrums took 6 minutes off the clock and much much longer in real time as Carley allowed Sale to conference with their water boy after every scrum. Usually under the pretence of an injury but as he matures the referee has to be firmer on time wasting like this.
Eventually he got bored and gave the penalty try. For the life of me I cannot see the difference between the final scrum of the series and the very first one. If a man was tackled without the ball and the try line begging you wouldn’t need to wait 8 times to give the penalty try so why for scrums?
Once we got into the sequence there were plenty of ups, downs and turning arounds but the first scrum was just monstered back. It was déjà vu all over again with Martin Fox and the London Irish game.
Williams’s conversion made it 30-20 and was his final act before Ryan Lamb replaced him. If this is the form Williams can produce after 6 weeks out of the side what will he be like playing every week? Do we actually need a mentally fragile and similarly aged Freddie Burns?
Mr. Carley had one final show of naivety in what will be a disappointing day for him. After a relatively fair penalty to Sale, after all it was against us so I’m not wholly convinced of it, he didn’t watch the clock as Sale sub Joe “George Ford’s brother” Ford lined up his penalty.
There was only 4.30 left on the clock when the tee was brought on. From that moment he has 60 seconds. Not 61 seconds, though no ref would spot that. Not 70 seconds, though many miss that small over run. Certainly not the 100 seconds (almost twice his allotted minute) he actually took to attempt his penalty.
The crowd had spotted it and Welford Road’s usual silence was broken as he frankly cheated and took the piss. He knew it was important to run down the clock and deliberately broke the rules to gain an advantage. Carley will need to keep his wits more about him as he comes up against cunning players who play to your whistle not the rules. I don’t blame Sale for this it is up to the referee to enforce the rules not the fans or the players.
Tigers had one last blast at getting the 4 tries but Ryan Lamb knocked on after good work from Tait and Goneva had got us into the Sale half. And so ended a fairly frustrating but relatively successful afternoon.