Ugly battle for survival between London Welsh and Sale lit up by Danny Cipriani and Gavin Henson
London Welsh 25 Sale 26
The Glitterati Twins, alternatively known as "Fancy Dan" and "Perma-Tan", are probably not the first outside-halves who spring to a selector's mind when there is a relegation dogfight to be won: neither Danny Cipriani nor Gavin Henson is said to be entirely displeased with what he sees when he looks at himself in the bathroom mirror of a morning, so the thought of being on the wrong end of a comprehensive hair-ruffling at the Kassam Stadium cannot have filled either man with joy.
Yet Cipriani and Henson, celebrity No 10s notoriously weighed down by lifestyle back-stories of Tolstoyan length, treated a small but rapt crowd on the outskirts of Oxford to glimpses of something special today, thereby confirming what most rugby folk have long suspected: that for all their flummeries and fragilities, they can play this hard old game – and occasionally play it unbelievably well.
By common consent, the try Cipriani created down the right on the stroke of half-time, when Sale were contemplating the likelihood of a damaging defeat that would leave them five points adrift at the foot of the table with only seven games left, was a minor masterpiece of distributive brilliance featuring two perfect passes, one off the left hand to Charlie Amesbury and one off the right to Will Cliff, who completed the score that overturned the home side's hard-earned and well-deserved lead.
Henson, the more experienced and tougher-minded of the two, was Cipriani's equal and more over the stretch of the 80 minutes. For one thing, he played the whole game; for another, Sale were constantly on red-alert in dealing with the attacking threat he posed. Cipriani, electrifying for a few split-seconds, drifted in and out of a match that was as much a study in paranoia as it was an intense physical contest. Henson went after the visitors with everything he had, and while he finished a point to the bad, it was hardly his fault.
If any one individual was to blame, the finger had to be pointed at the London Welsh wing Nick Scott – a matchwinner against Bath before Christmas, but a butcher of opportunity here. At the last knockings, with Sale doing everything in their power to wind down the clock with a series of drives in the Exiles' 22, the ball unexpectedly found its way into London Welsh hands and they set sail down the left touchline. Scott found himself in open field, with the full-back Tom Arscott outside him and a basic two-on-one overlap opening up in front of his eyes. Sadly for him and his team, he was blind to it. By cutting inside off his left foot, he allowed the visitors to scramble across and snuff out the danger.
"We're still bottom as we sit here and we have Harlequins and Leicester coming our way over the next fortnight, so we're not exactly out of the mire," said Steve Diamond, the Sale rugby director, with characteristic candour. "But there's a feeling of relief. We seem to have turned a corner in terms of team morale and if we can keep things going in that area, I think we might survive by the skin of our teeth."
It is hard to know precisely how much the improvement in collective spirit is down to the All Black flanker Daniel Braid, who joined the club last month just as a weird, wonderful and unprecedentedly short flirtation with the services of another New Zealander, the coach John Mitchell, was coming to an end. It is, however, crystal clear that Sale, not always completely successful in their transfer-market activities, have bought themselves a gem of rare quality.
By pairing Braid with the captain David Seymour, the northerners headed south with two scavenging flankers capable of picking a plentiful supply of meat from the carcass of an elephantine London Welsh pack. Even when the Exiles forwards were smashing seven bells out of the visitors in the scrums and stampeding upfield with a confrontational short-passing game in which the No 8 Ed Jackson repeatedly caught the eye, the two Sale breakaways proved highly effective in keeping their side in the contest.
For much of the first half, it seemed Franck Montanella and Neil Briggs, contrasting members of an outstanding London Welsh front row, would do the necessary on behalf of their team: Montanella with his strong-arm work at the set-piece, Briggs with his absurdly courageous forays into the soft underbelly of the Sale defence. But Cipriani's attacking intervention enabled the visitors to turn round 13-12 up, and when the Exiles' defence suffered a serious system failure immediately on the restart Braid was the beneficiary, cruising through a gap as wide as the Cook Strait to score from Cameron Shepherd's pass. The lead then looked decisive.
But if we have learnt one thing from this season's Premiership campaign, it is that London Welsh understand as well as anyone, and better than most, how to keep body and soul together in adversity. Back they came immediately: Alex Davies, considered by his coach Lyn Jones to be one of the league's best goal-kickers, landed a difficult left-field penalty to cut the deficit to five points before Henson combined strongly with Tyson Keats to manufacture a try for the Canadian wing Phil Mackenzie.
Henson then added a penalty of his own to give London Welsh some breathing space, but a couple of soft penalty infringements – one player caught for sneaking into a maul from the side, another spotted hanging around on the deck and up to no good – would ultimately undo them.
Jones did his best to put a brave face on the defeat – "A losing bonus point means we're one point closer to Worcester," he argued – but London Welsh are up to their eyeballs in trouble now. Their next four games are away from home, three of them against teams in decent form, and if their run-in is not quite as gruesome as Sale's, their survival depends on someone, somewhere doing them a massive favour.
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