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Saracens vs Sale: Mouthpiece Ford, WrestleMania, and an X-rated tweet

By Liam Heagney
The Sale players form their post-game huddle (Photo by Steve Bardens/Getty Images for Sale Sharks)

Saturday’s finale to the Gallagher Premiership regular season was extravagant with curveballs aplenty. Bristol Lam-balled Harlequins at The Stoop, Leicester showed Exeter who was the round 18 chief at Welford Road, while Bath battered a table-topping Northampton that had pulled its final day punches by not sending its strongest XV to The Rec.

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When it came to the pivotal mover and shaker in the play-off race, though, it was the result at the StoneX Stadium that eclipsed everything else. Sale didn’t just beat Saracens 20-10, they impressively outplayed and out-enthused them with relentless physicality and an impressive starting scrum.

The away day victory saw them jump from fourth to third on the table to book a semi-final at Bath while the hosts fell from second to fourth, losing hold of a home semi-final and now facing a trip to Northampton instead.

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Here are the RugbyPass talking points from a shark bite afternoon in North London:

Tough kid, George
It’s said that opposites attract and that must very much have been the case when Alex Sanderson used to assist Mark McCall at Saracens for a decade plus before he headed home to Manchester to become Sale director of rugby.

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Post-game at the StoneX highlighted how very differently wired the pair are. Whereas McCall was as guarded as ever and gone back out the door in less than five minutes, Sanderson smashed open a can of Red Stripe and was open to all-comers.

McCall, for example, suggested his team “is a very honest group” but asked what they had been saying post-game, his reply was, “I’m not going to tell you too much.”

Contrast that to Sanderson, who had no qualms about giving up Sale insight. Here’s his description of their on-pitch post-game hot take. “Ben Curry is our captain but Ben defers to George (Ford).

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“George was talking in the circle afterwards. Ben leads by example but George is very much the mouthpiece with regards to what we are doing right now and it is impressive what we are doing.

“He is a tough kid, George. Physically, because of his size, he soaks a tackle or two but he gets stuck in. He was quite aggressive afterwards; he was saying, ‘We’re not celebrating this, we are going for Bath’.”

Ford is a player unrecognisable from the No10 wrapped up in an England straitjacket last February. He lit up his country’s attack in March and has since done the same for Sale, frequently looking for an edge around the corner with slick passing.

All the more impressive was that he came through in London after a terrible start where he booted the kick-off out on the full and then dropped a soft pass that left him getting the bird by the Saracens supporters.

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His riposte was sublime, very much leaving opposite number Owen Farrell in the shade in what became his last home match before the exit to France due to his team’s loss.

WrestleMania every ruck
Last weekend coming out of Ashton Gate, Juan Martin Gonzalez was the back-rower who had grabbed the imagination of RugbyPass for his all-action effort on both sides of the ball for Saracens against Bristol.

At the StoneX, though, the Argentine was eclipsed by the visiting Sam Dugdale, an unsung hero of the Sharks season whose effort will add intrigue to his team’s semi-final selection with Tom Curry expected to be available for his first club appearance of 2023/24.

Nineteen tackles put Dugdale on top of the tackle chart, while his carrying in taking a metre here and a metre there was important in Sale gaining some in-traffic momentum. Sanderson was thrilled. “Sam Dugdale is like the forgotten man behind the Currys and the du Preezs,” he beamed.

“He has got two man of the matches in the last three weeks, so I couldn’t be more chuffed for him because he has worked so hard at his craft. In the past has always been the bridesmaid when the more popular players have come back but we chose to start him this week instead of Ernst van Rhyn. You talk about the breakdown, he just went after it. He epitomised everything. It was like Wrestlemania every ruck.”

Mention of Curry, whose last match before hip surgery was England’s bronze win at the Rugby World Cup last October, he was busy on the sideline encouraging his team to extend their season. “I’m watching him move in preparation for the week before (against Leicester) and he looks ready. He is moving so well,” reckoned Sanderson.

“We just took a step back and have given him two weeks of pre-season training and we will see where he is at. He will want to be involved (at Bath)… but he will have to go well to get in the side, won’t he!”

The WTAF??? club owner’s tweet
Sale’s progress in 12 months can be gauged in two matches versus Saracens. At Twickenham in last year’s final, they were ahead for 15 second-half minutes before being swept aside to lose 25-35.

This time around, they were made of much sterner stuff when they used their bench, restricting McCall’s side to just one converted try in the 27 minutes that were left to play after the visitors jumped 20-3 ahead with Rob du Preez’s opportunistic finish.

“Yeah, I thought really mature second half how they were able to manage the game as you could see and feel because there was a high ball in play time in the first half, leaning into the set-piece which burns some of the clock,” explained Sanderson.

“We’re not talking gamesmanship here, they [Saracens] were just going, trying to run us off our feet so you have got to lean into areas of strength which we felt today was the set-piece and our physicality. So how they managed that second half was a really good sign of growth for this group.

“They are not over-celebrating right now. They came down because they expected to win in how we prepped and how we talked and they are looking already at Bath.”

An interesting connection between the Saracens games then and now was Luke Pearce as referee. Sale owner Simon Orange wasn’t a fan. He isn’t a social media regular but he posted his first tweet to X in seven months at half-time at the StoneX, taking umbrage at the decision to disallow the Luke Cowan-Dickie try.

Pearce had initially awarded it and Ford had started his conversion kick preparation when a different-angle replay of the grounding popped up on the big screen and resulted in the referee blowing his whistle to take a look. Separation before grounding was the outcome and the try was chalked off.

“Sale have just scored a perfectly good try which Pearce has somehow disallowed,” wrote Orange. “I’m absolutely gobsmacked. Grounded the ball under control. WTAF?????”

Given the RFU took firm action in the past against Jack Nowell and Anthony Watson for tweets critical of referees, it will be curious to see how criticism from a club owner is treated.

Maitland’s brutal retirement
The round 18 StoneX Stadium fallout was very much a case of two very different injury outlooks. While Saracens were mourning the accelerated retirement of Sean Maitand, Sale were giving Manu Tuilagi every chance of somehow being available for his team’s semi-final at The Rec despite his hamstring forcing him off after just 17 and a bit minutes.

At least the Bayonne-bound midfielder got to play. Maitland was all set to feature his first match in six weeks since Saracens ‘ European thrashing at Bordeaux.

A knock for Rotimi Segun had created a vacancy that the ex-Scotland winger was to fill but he never made it to the kick-off.

Instead, a collision in the warm-up with Elliot Daly resulted in suspected PCL damage to his knee that brought forward his retirement from the end of the season. What an unfortunate way to go!

Maitland was badly missed, too, as it was an error from Alex Lewington, his 11th-hour replacement, that gifted Sale the try that put them 20-3 clear.

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