Tackle-free draw between Irish and Sale means Welsh need a miracle
London Irish 33 Sale 33
If drawn matches are the union game's equivalent of "kissing your sister", as the former Saracens and Harlequins boss Mark Evans once ventured to suggest, the squared affair in Reading yesterday felt like the kiss of death for poor, put-upon London Welsh, who are now eight points adrift at the foot of the table and staring relegation in the eye. Even breaks and slices of luck are no good to them now. They need a miracle. Maybe two.
This meeting between the sides immediately above them on the log was entertaining enough, but as the tackling was of the optional variety, there was something counterfeit about it. Shaun Edwards, the Wales coach directly responsible for the defensive security that enabled the re-crowned Six Nations champions to play almost 360 minutes of championship rugby without conceding a single try, was spotted among the audience.
It must have been a tragi-comic experience for him: part side-splitter, part horror story.
Brian Smith, the London Irish head honcho, confessed that his team had been a "shambles" in defence, and precious few voices were raised in disagreement. The Australian appeared with a bandage on his right hand. It was not immediately clear whether the dressing-room wall had a fist-sized hole in it, but nobody will die of shock if that turns out to be the case.
"We've been battling with injuries all season: most weeks we've had 18 on the casualty list and we've had to put out the same soldiers game on game, so there are some tired bodies among our number," Smith remarked, just about finding it within himself to offer an excuse on behalf of those who had spent the afternoon waving Sale players through holes like policemen directing traffic.
"To be honest, the result could have gone either way. They missed a couple of kicks to win it, we bombed a couple of tries. That's not my concern, though. The performance was what worried me. I'm pretty filthy with that."
The visitors felt a whole lot happier with life, largely because they can now expect to live on in the top flight. Their fourth try, scored by the angular No 8 James Gaskell early in the second half, guaranteed them at least one league point, and when Nick Macleod banged over a left-sided penalty with a little over a minute left on the clock, they collected two more.
They are not mathematically safe, as the saying goes, but London Welsh need two wins from their last three matches and hope that Sale draw a blank – a very tall order indeed.
Yet in truth, Sale were every bit as hopeless as their hosts when it came to manning the barricades. As early as the third minute, Sailosi Tagicakibau ran through Sam Tuitupou (a New Zealander particularly noted for his tackling game), Dwayne Peel (a Lions scrum-half, no less) and Charlie Amesbury (a defensive lightweight, admittedly) in laying the foundations for Guy Armitage's opening score. Five minutes later, the Tongan prop Halani Aulika ran fully 40 metres through a ghost town to take Irish into double figures.
At this stage, it seemed as though Smith's side would win by plenty, thereby leaving London Welsh within a single victory of Sale. But when Henry Thomas, the northerners' highly skilled footballing prop, smashed the home defence to smithereens at the end of the first quarter – far from being constructed out of iron, Irish were made of nothing more substantial than balsa wood – it became clear that this would be an "after you Claude" affair, with both teams scoring freely.
Sure enough, the former England wing Mark Cueto then registered a presence on the board, sidestepping his way to the line past powder-puff resistance after more direct work from Thomas. A flurry of Tom Homer penalties – my, the man has a boot on him – restored the Irish lead, but when Tuitupou slid an intelligent kick towards the enemy red zone, Homer messed up sufficiently to present Kearnan Myall with a try at the right flag. Sale turned round two points to the good, and very happy.
Gaskell's third-quarter touchdown and a Macleod penalty extended the visitors' advantage to 10 points and they might have disappeared into the distance had the match officials, off the field as well as on, not conspired to award the home prop Max Lahiff a close-range try that was invisible to the naked eye.
Quite why the television replay laws are as complicated as they are is a mystery beyond all understanding. The match referee should simply ask: "Try, or no try?" To which the video ref would then feel able to say: "I can't see it because I have 58 tonnes of human flesh blocking my view. Let's settle for a scrum."
Something else that may baffle those mere mortals who just watch the game rather than legislate on it or coach it is the continuing absence of Danny Cipriani from the Sale line-up. Yesterday, the Born-Awkward One was on the bench, playing second fiddle to the more reliable but infinitely less gifted Macleod.
And there he stayed. Even with the game crying out to be won by a midfield playmaker with a touch of class, he was ignored like so much excess baggage.
"Nick Macleod has been playing really well recently and when you're showing a bit of form you keep with it," said Steve Diamond, the Sale rugby director, by way of explanation. "You look to someone like Danny to either start a game or come on and change a game that needs changing."
In other words, Diamond decided to stick rather than twist. How very conservative.
There again, he had a point. After suffering the full range of rugby agonies over the last seven months, Diamond was justified in not risking three points in pursuit of five. The league table tells you that much – and at this stage of proceedings, it is the table that matters.
London Irish: Tries Armitage, Aulika, Lahiff; Conversions Homer 3; Penalties Homer 4. Sale: Tries Thomas, Cueto, Myall, Gaskell; Conversions Macleod 2; Penalties Macleod 3.
London Irish T Homer; M Yarde, G Armitage, S Geraghty (T Ojo 73), S Tagicakibau (J Joseph 63); I Humphreys, P Phibbs (D Allinson 8); M Lahiff (J Yanuyanutawa 76), D Paice (S Lawson 73), H Aulika (L Halavatau h-t), G Skivington (capt), B Evans, M Garvey (J Sinclair 73), O Treviranus, C Hala'ufia (Lawson 22-28, J Fisher h-t).
Sale C Shepherd; C Amesbury, J Leota, S Tuitupou (T Brady 59), M Cueto; N Macleod, D Peel; A Dickinson (R Harrison 53), M Jones (T Taylor 53), H Thomas (A Buckley 65), K Myall, A Ostrikov, D Braid (R Vernon 53), D Seymour (capt), J Gaskell.
Referee G Garner (Warwickshire).
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