Sarries catch Sharks as Cipriani home debut stalls
Sale Sharks 16 Saracens 23: Sale's indifferent start continues thanks to Hodgson's passing and vision
Apart from a short spell in the third quarter when it looked as if Sale might garland their tidy new stadium with a winning introduction to the Premiership, it was Saracens' stronger squad – with a significant seam of Northern soul running through it – who prevailed. Two wins out of two for Sarries and two defeats for the Sharks is the not unpredictable tally from the season's opening fortnight.
Danny Cipriani's home debut after returning to England from a season and a half in Melbourne pitted his 471 career Premiership points from his formative days at Wasps against the record-holder Charlie Hodgson's 2,009 – most of them harvested in the blue jersey of Sale.
Now Hodgson and his half-back partner Richard Wigglesworth, who both won the Premiership with the Sharks in 2006, were busy on Saracens' behalf, making the best of some dodgy line-out possession to launch attacks to the wide featuring two former Wigan rugby league backs Chris Ashton and Joel Tomkins.
Meanwhile on the touchline angry glances were swapped when Sale's chief executive Steve Diamond – not a huge fan of the current Saracens regime after the truncated 15-month spell he had as head coach there – spotted the visitors' assistant coach Alex Sanderson prowling the touchline out of the technical area. Sanderson is another Sale old boy, and in between all the one-upmanship going on between former colleagues, we had the unfolding experiment of the utterly neutral television match official.
Four penalties by Hodgson, getting himself quickly adjusted to the Sharks' new home at Salford City Stadium having previously done his stuff for them at Heywood Road and Edgeley park, had Saracens 12-3 up after 26 minutes, with Cipriani having opened with a 35-minute penalty in the fourth minute. Cipriani had already felt himself hard done by to be penalised for a deliberate knock-on to give Hodgson his second kick – in fact Ashton's potentially scoring pass to Wigglesworth was simply misdirected – and suggested to referee Dave Pearson that the TMO could have a look. But players are not allowed such requests, and Pearson felt no need himself to check.
After 31 minutes, from a ruck after a line-out, Saracens typically flew up hard in the midfield, and Brad Barritt blocked Sam Tuitupou as the Sale centre gave chase to a dabbed chip by Cipriani. This time Pearson did smell a rat, the TMO Trevor Fisher confirmed the block – though no yellow card for Barritt – and Cipriani's easy kick plus another soon after when Richie Vernon hounded Chris Wyles into holding on, had Sale just three points behind at half-time.
What needs to be decided over the TMO review – and probably much sooner than the entire season the trial is running for in the Premiership – is whether the umming and aahing while the tapes are checked are worth the interruption to the natural flow; also, whether the spectators' supposed satisfaction that the "big decisions" are being put right outweighs the nagging feeling of unfairness that other infringements are go unchecked.
Cipriani's hesitation that allowed an early charge down by Hodgson – a quick scurry back by Cipriani and Johnny Leota's fully committed tackle on Barritt saved Sale there.
The northern super club that Sale are aiming to be really ought to be the natural home for all those stars who have drifted south; hearteningly, one of the youngsters of the region raised the first songs of "Sale, Sale" to be heard here when Will Addison, the England Under-20 wing from Cumbria, caught a flicked pass by Wyles and raced 80 metres down the right hand touchline to score a try converted by Cipriani.
Trailing 16-12, Saracens stuck to their plan, and prospered. Hodgson missed for the first time then landed a penalty on 58 minutes. And the typically undaunted Brits returned to the gallops in an attack off the line-out which with Hodgson's visionary pass releasing Andy Goode to sprint past Cipriani ushered the exultant Ashton in at the corner. Sale cheers turned to boos when Pearson penalised the home front row in the scrum – Hodgson kicked the goal for 23-16 after 66 minutes, and Saracens had the power and the territory thereafter to quell any fightback.
Saracens coach Mark McCall said: "We look a little more dangerous and a little less predictable but it's a work in progress." The greater commitment to handling fashioned new signing Ashton's third try in two matches, and Hodgson said: "We've tried to develop oour attack anyway but if we're getting the best out of Chris that's good."
Sale coach Bryan Redpath said: "We did look a little shy in parts after a 40-point defeat [at Exeter] last weekend. It will take time to get that confidence back."
Sale Sharks R Miller; W Addison, J Leota, S Tuitupou (C Uys 58), M Cueto; D Cipriani, D Peel (W Cliff) 72; E Lewis Roberts (A Dickinson 60), J Ward, V Cobilas (H Thomas 68), R Gray, K Myall, J Gaskell, R Vernon, D Seymour (capt).
Saracens A Goode; C Ashton, J Tomkins (O Farrell 48), B Barritt, C Wyles; C Hodgson, R Wigglesworth (N de Kock 51); M Vunipola, S Brits (J George 72), P du Plessis (C Nieto 49), S Borthwick (capt), M Botha (A Hargreaves 58), K Brown, E Joubert, W Fraser (J Wray 58).
Referee: D Pearson (Northumberland).
Pens: Cipriani 3
Pens: Hodgson 6
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