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The three facets of play that are costing Sale the most penalties

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images for Sale Sharks)

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Alex Sanderson has vowed to improve the on-pitch discipline at Sale, but not at the cost of the physicality that makes them a competitive side in the Gallagher Premiership and the Heineken Champions Cup. The Sharks are by no means the English league’s worst offenders as they currently only check in at seventh on the most penalties conceded list, their 110 Premiership total a far rosier number than the biggest offenders Bath and their 130 infringements.    

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However, rookie director of rugby Sanderson admits his team doesn’t help itself at times. Having gotten through the opening eight matches of their league campaign coughing up only three yellow cards and one red, their behaviour has come in for scrutiny in their two most recent outings. 

Bryon McGuigan was red-carded for a needless mixed martial arts-style intervention at Saracens. It landed him a three-game suspension, and Sale then failed to kick on to secure a four-try bonus in their opening round European match at Ospreys last Sunday. 

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Three tries had the comfortably 21-3 ahead after just 24 minutes but a pair of yellow cards for Lood de Jager and Ben Curry and the concession of 18 penalties in total left them stuttering through the remainder of a match that also had a disciplinary hearing sequel, Nick Schonert getting banned for two games for a collision after he had dangerously entered a maul.

Sanderson now wants his Sale team to improve its behaviour, but not to such a draconian level where it stops them from being competitive. Ahead of the round two European game at home to Clermont, a match that was postponed on Friday due to tightened virus regulations in France, the Sale boss reflected on his team’s general level of discipline which has given the club a bit of an unwanted reputation.  

“I tend not to listen to public opinion, I probably wouldn’t have a job if I did,” he said, but he admitted the concessions of a high number of penalties does take a toll. “Of course it does and it affects performance, but the alternative is we give away five penalties and we are not competitive or not physical. If I had a choice, I’d rather give away ten to twelve penalties and be on the edge, but more often than not we seem to tip over. We are trying to find where that edge is. Is it individuals and being that bit more aware in the context of the game? We are massively physical, very competitive and with that comes an ill-discipline with Sale and that would be our own perception of ourselves. It is something we want to remedy without losing that physicality that we have.”

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Asked what areas do Sale most infringe in, Sanderson said: “Offsides, off feet in attacking breakdown and also when we are jackaling for balls, and the scrum has been a consistent issue in terms of collapsing or someone taking an angle.” The Sale boss added that he has had referees visit his squad to help them brush up on their discipline, but that is something he would like to do more often as well as practising more on the training ground how to handle the periods when they are down a man to a sin-bin or a red card.

“We probably need to more, definitely. We have had referees down three times and had someone down about four weeks ago during the Prem Cup,” he said when asked about referee visits before moving on to how much they train for going a man down. “Not a massive amount. We have done more in the past, maybe we should do more again. 

“There is scenario planning and of course the position they get sent off has a massive impact on the defensive system and/or how you approach the breakdown. We have certain fixes and go to depending on what position goes off for set-piece defence and a clear message so we have got a shared mental model of what the plan is for that ten minutes.

“What happened last weekend with Ben going off for not releasing, accumulative penalties, Ospreys at that time had the rub of the green in the scrums and the maul, so it was a pretty easy plan. We took a winger off, put JP du Preez (a lock) on and said, ‘Right, we have got to win this up front’. Marland (Yarde), you have got to swap sides and chase every kick… we will scrum and maul and we will wrest back that momentum. That gives you an example of last weekend what we did. That is just one scenario. It could be different depending on what the game needs.”

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