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Surviving and thriving: Why Sale's win over Worcester epitomises why Northern rugby matters

By Claire Thomas
4th February 2023- Sale Sharks celebrate their win over Worcester in Round 10 of the Premier 15s. Photo: Omega Photography

Last week – Sale Sharks and Worcester Warriors did two great things. They received conditional offers to remain in the Premier 15s, after missing out in December’s initial restructure, and they put on a serious show at the Corpacq Stadium. A whopping 70 points were scored, and yet just two would separate the combatants at full time. It was a brilliant match for a whole host of reasons, and exactly the occasion these sides and their supporters deserved.

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The ‘Sharks x Warriors’ collaboration has produced some belters of late, but what’s thrilling this season is the prominence and consequence of them. With 10 rounds played, they’re perched fifth and sixth in the table, and their scalp collections are outgrowing their (initially modest-sized) trophy cabinets. Between them, they’ve downed Loughborough Lightning, Harlequins, Wasps, and DMP this year.

Pre-match, Sharks’ Coach Rachel Taylor spoke of the ‘extra drive’ her team possess – knowing that they represent Northern rugby at this level – and Worcester’s Jo Yapp predicted a game with ‘massive amounts of energy’. Both teams had targeted this one, and the week’s news only turbocharged that. Warriors’ collective exhalation will have been the most fervent of all: they’ve been in participation purgatory since August.

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As it turned out, we were treated to a full 80-minute wrestle over said scruff: Sale versus Worcester proved one of the battles of the season, and the hosts exploded from the blocks. Penalty. Territory. Drills. Handling. Jugular. Katana Howard – who was mightily impressive on both sides of the ball – was over within moments, and the celebrations spoke for themselves. Their trademark supporters’ drum was being thwacked with particular joy this time, it seemed: peals of Northern thunder, ready to rumble on into next season and beyond.

When Warriors could bring Sharks to deck, the battle at the breakdown was ferocious. This was hardly surprising: Yapp’s side have had to scrap since before the campaign even begun, and have grown very good at it. This is a Worcester Women’s outfit who survived the collapse of the wider club, and who responded to their exclusion from the 23/24 season in December by putting 50 unanswered points, away from home, on Wasps.

They would eventually have their say, but not before Sharks circled back for another bite. Sale scrum-half Mhairi Grieve was playing the game on the 1.25x speed you sometimes accidentally put your podcasts on, and pinned Warriors back in their own 22. Holly Thorpe was on hand to pounce in the most effortless sort of way – looking to have all the time in the world as she finished a delight in the corner.

Taylor has spoken about how essential it is that Sharks remain in the league, offering a pathway ‘from North to Red Roses’, and young Lizzie Duffy epitomised that. The England U20 brought her high-octane attacking style to the number 10 jersey – constantly scanning as she dished out pancake-flat passes – but also put in some monstrous hits: marmalising a charging Cara Brincat in the first quarter, before holding Carys Cox up over the line moments later with a textbook try-saver.

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Sharks led 12 – 0 with 15 played, and then the pendulum swung – and Carys Phillips started stuffing balls up jumpers. The Welsh hooker dotted down twice in 10 minutes – a spell during which Lydia Thompson also beat a trio of defenders en route to a seriously classy five points. Sharks 12 – 17 Warriors, with half time looming.

Cue Georgie Perris-Redding – who is having the season of her life, and whose blossoming, symbiotic relationship with Alycia Washington will thrill whoever is the next USA Eagles coach. She’d already charged down Minori Yamamoto’s first conversion attempt (how essential an involvement that appears, when you consider the full-time score), and proved impossible to stop at close range as the hooter sounded – dotting down a leveller. 17 -17 at the break.

The players had a moment to get their breath back, but the live stream watch remained compelling. Laura Perrin joined the half-time punditry team and provided a moment of levity when she promoted the hashtag ‘Northern Rugby Matters’ but she also spoke passionately about how Sale ‘is our home. This is where we want to play our rugby’.

Sharks didn’t skip a beat as play resumed, and Niamh Swailes ran straight into her own highlights reel with a 30-metre dash. Only a fine covering tackle from Thompson prevented the young hooker doing something truly Sarah Bern-esque – but the damage was done, and the territory gain allowed Sale to get low and hit hard. Caity Benson was soon over for the bonus point.

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Taylor and her squad were laser focussed on the result, and pragmatic with their next steps. Duffy was playing brilliantly, but had missed three of four efforts from the tee, so up stepped centre Vicky Irwin – who nailed the touchline conversion, before popping up moments later with the sort of scything midfield line Duhan Van Der Merwe would be executing just a few hours later at Twickenham. Sharks went for broke – keeping the ball alive against all odds, and with real aplomb – and it was Grieve who finished off a sumptuous team score. Chef’s kisses all round. Chapeau, Sharks. The gap grew to 14.

Fortunately, deficits aren’t something which intimidate Yapp’s squad (just ask Loughborough Lightning), and they had a diminutive but powerful ace in the hole. Co-captain Caity Mattinson arrived as her team stood on the wrong side of a 31-17 score line and changed the game. The next Worcester penalty was buried in the corner, and an attacking lineout launched. It was slowed, and then stymied, and then stopped illegally – and, the instant the referee’s hand went up, so too did Mattinson’s. Worcester would go again, she indicated, whilst turning to her forwards and gesturing for composure. This time, it stuck, and Philips had her second hattrick of the season.

Warriors began to combine Mattinson’s box kicking accuracy with the voraciousness of their chasers, and pinned Sharks back in their own 22. The scrum half peppered the short side, and eventually picked out Thompson for her brace. Four points in it.

Mattinson’s introduction had proven an injection of pure pace and leadership: a reminder that, overseeing this brutal chess match, were two hugely talented female coaches. That the Premier 15s will continue to feature their acumen and passion next season is crucial – although you’d not be too surprised to see Yapp in a more floral tracksuit at some point soon…

Washington’s been ballistic and brilliant each time she’s faced her former club: scoring the match-winner in the second round, and doing the same on this occasion. The totemic number eight plucked the ball from the base of the scrum, and that was that. You don’t stop players of her calibre from five metres out… The USA Eagle injured herself in the act of scoring, but took the time whilst limping from the field to bellow ‘go get ‘em, girls!’ at the Sharks remaining on the pitch. Every team should have an Alycia Washington.

Nine points the gap. Three minutes remaining. The commentators were discussing just which Shark would receive Player of the Match when Warriors reminded us all just how they’ve found themselves mid-table, and back in next season’s plans, despite all they’ve weathered since the summer. Phillips threw another dart somehow both languid and torpedo-like, Cox slalomed her way to within inches of the try line, and – eventually – Akina Gondwe had it down. Yamamoto drop-kicked the extras, and Captain Fantastic Mattinson was immediately hauling her charges from their celebrations and back for the restart.

Time would prove their enemy – as would the tenacity of Thorpe, who managed the decisive turnover – and Sarah Law was able to hoof the ball, which had had the leather played off it over a barnstorming 80 minutes, from the pitch. The elation was telling: a club reassured it would both survive and thrive in this league. As Coach Taylor said post-match: ‘it’s been a tough couple of months – and that’s the perfect response. I couldn’t be prouder.’

Sharks 36 – 34 Warriors. A massive boost for a Sale outfit whose Round 11 will see them head to Franklin’s Gardens entirely confident in their ability to do the double over Loughborough. Before that, they’ve a rearranged tea party with Saracens at Heywood Road. It’s probably too great of an ask – Alex Austerberry’s wolfpack are snarling once more – but this ground has become a tough, tough place to go. Taylor put it best: ‘they defend this place with all their heart.’

Warriors host a rejuvenated Bristol Bears this Saturday, which should be fascinating. They need to address their discipline – 16 penalties just won’t cut the mustard – but this is the most formidable Worcester outfit we’ve seen in the Premier15s era, and what matters most is that they’re here to stay.

As attention turned to an afternoon of Six Nations action, the teams departed. Sale with maximum points, and Warriors with two: the most profitable possible outcome, in terms of the table. How perfectly fitting – given the week’s news. These two deserved a rich haul, Premier 15s rugby deserves to exist in the North, and these Warriors deserve to keep fighting.

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