Sale's warriors the last men standing after carnage at the Gardens

Northampton 6 - Sale 23
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The Independent Online

If all exercise is a short cut to the cemetery, as the barrister-writer John Mortimer once suggested, modern-day rugby may come be regarded as a fast train to the chapel of rest. The way things are going, Premiership matches will soon require the services of a coroner, as well as a referee, two touch-judges, a fourth official and a citing officer. The body count is of Rollerball proportions - players are either taken off on stretchers, carried off, or limp off under what is left of their own steam - and it will not be long before front-row forwards are declared an endangered species.

If all exercise is a short cut to the cemetery, as the barrister-writer John Mortimer once suggested, modern-day rugby may come be regarded as a fast train to the chapel of rest. The way things are going, Premiership matches will soon require the services of a coroner, as well as a referee, two touch-judges, a fourth official and a citing officer. The body count is of Rollerball proportions - players are either taken off on stretchers, carried off, or limp off under what is left of their own steam - and it will not be long before front-row forwards are declared an endangered species.

"I am not at all sure I will be able to pick a full back division next week," said the Sale director of rugby, Philippe Saint-André, at Franklin's Gardens on Saturday, after watching two more of his dwindling band of threequarters, Josh Taumalolo and Chris Rhys Jones, vacate the arena in bits. He should worry. His opposite number, the beleaguered Alan Solomons of Northampton, ended the afternoon without a prop to call his own. Robbie Kempson, Robbie Morris, Tom Smith... all three buckled under the glacial weight of the game's physicality, as did their fellow grunt-and-groaner from the sharp end of the scrum, Steve Thompson, who was history inside eight minutes after popping a rib cartilage. England may find themselves without their World Cup-winning hooker when the international season begins at Twickenham next month.

As a result of this carnage, a near sell-out crowd was forced to endure uncontested scrums for the final half-hour of the contest - the equivalent of watching The Godfather without guns, garrottes or horses' heads. Had the game stretched much beyond the 100 minutes allotted to it by Chris White, the referee, there would have been uncontested everything, for the very good reason that no one would have been left to do the contesting. As it was, both sides used up their quota of replacements and finished with 14 men apiece, most of them orthopaedically challenged.

Paul Grayson, the former Test outside-half who witnessed his club's fifth consecutive defeat from the safety of the stand, expressed the view that the intensity of the average Premiership fixture has increased by 25 per cent since last season. He also suspects that many of the league's southern hemisphere imports, a fair proportion of whom have surfaced at Northampton, are both astonished and unnerved by the ferocity of the conflict in the tackle area. "I'm not sure anyone ever plays fully fit these days," he added mournfully, glancing down at a right hand encased in plaster.

Thus rugby finds itself between a rock and a hard place. Increased fitness levels and improved conditioning have increased the game's velocity a dozen-fold in the professional era, which in turn leads to a heavier toll on players' bodies. "It's chicken-and-egg territory," Solomons said. "The sport is harder because the players are fitter, which in turn leaves them more open to the risk of injury. I don't see any practical way in which the game might be de-powered; it's not in the nature of the thing. The crucial aspect here is to ensure these people get sufficient rest. After a game like this on a Saturday, they shouldn't be engaged in anything remotely resembling rugby until the following Tuesday."

Twenty years ago, there were probably half a dozen forwards in the world who were both genuinely big and genuinely dynamic; now, there are dozens of the blighters. Yet it remains a fact that there are precious few Sébastien Chabals to the kilogram. The French No 8 followed Philippe Saint-André from Bourgoin to Sale at the end of last season, having failed to flourish at international level under Bernard Laporte, who, according to Saint-André, made the mistake of straitjacketing a free spirit. "To get the best from Sébastien, you must allow him to roam," Saint-André explained at the start of the campaign. Chabal roamed to his heart's content here, and his performance was stunning.

Another Sébastien - Bruno, a powerfully squat hooker who moved to the north-west from Béziers - was very nearly as impressive in helping Andrew Sheridan and Stuart Turner scrummage Northampton into the ether, and the platform established by the two Frenchmen allowed Sililo Martens and Charlie Hodgson to outplay the home half-backs. Martens had himself a ball around the fringes, suckering the Northampton loose forwards into conceding unnecessary penalties and crawling all over the Saints' own linchpin, Mark Robinson, at every available opportunity. Hodgson, meanwhile, kicked beautifully from both hand and tee, three long-range penalties in the opening 24 minutes setting the tone.

Even if Northampton had gained parity up front, they would have struggled to generate the necessary momentum to win the game. Bruce Reihana, a wonderful full-back, was press-ganged into service at outside-half and looked about as comfortable as a fish in a tree. Meanwhile, the recalled World Cup wing Ben Cohen struggled to make the slightest impression on his rival for an England berth, the uncapped Mark Cueto, and completed a fruitless afternoon by lobbing a frightful hospital pass to nobody in particular - a pass that left both Shane Drahm and the unfortunate Rhys Jones in need of medical assistance.

Cueto, on the other hand, looked full of the joys. Having shown himself to be secure in the tackle, busy in support and faultless at the restarts, he illuminated an increasingly drab afternoon by beating Cohen to Drahm's high cross-kick, landing on his feet and running 95 metres for the wrap-up try. If Andy Robinson, the new England coach, has any sense, he will think long and hard about awarding the 24-year-old a Test debut against Canada on 13 November. Always assuming Cueto stays fit that long.

Northampton: Penalties: Drahm 2. Sale: Tries Sheridan, Cueto; Conversions Hodgson 2; Penalties Hodgson 3.

Northampton: S Drahm (B Patston, 82); W Human, M Stcherbina, C Hyndman (M Tucker, 71), B Cohen; B Reihana, M Robinson (J Howard, 87); T Smith, S Thompson (D Richmond, 8), R Kempson (R Morris, 18; G Seely, 49), S Boome, M Lord (D Browne, 6-15, 57-63, 68), D Fox, C Krige (capt), A Blowers (Seely, 37-40).

Sale: J Robinson (capt); M Cueto, J Taumalolo (C Rhys Jones, 47), R Todd, J Moore (M Hercus, 61); C Hodgson, S Martens (B Redpath, 77); A Sheridan (B Stewart, 80), S Bruno, S Turner (A Titterrell, 58), C Jones, D Schofield (C Day, 12), J White (Titterrell, 20-31; P Anglesea, 76), M Lund, S Chabal.

Referee: C White (Gloucestershire).

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