Saturday 9 May 2015 – 2.00pm
AJ Bell Stadium, Salford
Aviva Premiership #21
When the fixtures came out, I was slightly apprehensive about this game.
Why? Well, in 2000 Ipswich Town were promoted to the football Premiership. Their first home game in 2000/01 was against Manchester United, and then the following season their last home game was against Manchester United too, and they were relegated.
What’s that got to do with us? If you remember, the Falcons’ first away game back in the top division last September was at Sale, and tomorrow our final away game of this season is also in Salford.
A far-fetched link of course, and once it became clear how few points London Welsh were going to get, I wasn’t worried any more.
Tomorrow’s game appears to be a dead rubber in terms of the league – Gloucester’s Challenge Cup victory means that the seventh-placed Sharks need to overhaul an eight-point gap to Wasps ahead of them to qualify for the Champions Cup, while the Falcons are even further behind London Irish in tenth.
However, tomorrow marks the last home game for Sale for winger Mark Cueto, one of the top players of the professional era. A one-club man and the Premiership’s all-time top try-scorer with more than a try every three games in his 301 appearances for Sale, Cueto’s career will be celebrated at the AJ Bell Stadium tomorrow ahead of his retirement this summer.
Amazingly, since he also scored 20 tries in 55 England caps, Cueto will perhaps be best remembered by fans of other clubs for a try that wasn’t – he controversially had a try ruled out by the TMO in the 2007 World Cup Final, which England narrowly lost to South Africa, for a foot in touch.
So tomorrow’s game will be the Falcons’ second visit to the ground formerly known as Salford City Stadium, home of the Salford Red Devils in Rugby League and Sale of union. The first trip there was, as I’ve said, in September 2013, when I got the feeling that it was all still a bit brand new. Not surprising perhaps, since it only opened ahead of the 2012 Super League season, but it was definitely quite shiny. The building was anyway, much of the site was still mud awaiting development.
It may have been the Falcons’ first away game back in the big time, and come on the back of a dour 0-21 defeat to Bath in our opening match, but the Falcons pulled off a good result by winning at Sale for the first time since April 2010. In front of a crowd of 6,876 (not too far off the Sharks’ average since they moved from Stockport’s Edgeley Park), Sale led 11-9 at half-time thanks to captain Dan Braid’s try and two penalties from Nick MacLeod, while three penalties by Phil Godman kept us in touch.
With tries at a premium in our opening games, there were also penalties in the second half, one apiece from MacLeod, Godman and his replacement Rory Clegg with thirteen minutes left, and the Falcons withstood big Shark pressure to hold on to a tight 14-15 win.
You can’t talk about Sale away without remembering one of the great league games in our history though. ‘Twas in April 2010 when the Falcons travelled to Stockport to take on relegation rivals Sale. The 30-32 scoreline tells barely half the story, the rest is here.
We have already met Sale twice this season. In the reverse Premiership fixture at KP in November, the Falcons led 13-8 with an hour gone but Danny Cipriani’s penalty, followed up by a try by Jonny Leota that the much-maligned England fly-half set up by catching his own chip over our defence, gave the Sharks a 13-18 win in front of the BT Sport cameras.
The Falcons gained a little revenge in a meaningless LV= Cup game, also in the North East, at the start of February. Alex Rogers, Josh Furno, Uili Kolo’ofai and Lee Smith (two) crossed in a 39-19 bonus point win.
Other than that, Sale have had a disappointing season in the league, their likely finish in the bottom half denying them another crack at the Champions Cup. This season’s failure to reach the last eight in the elite tournament could partially be put down to the ludicrous situation of three of last season’s semi-finalists – Saracens, Clermont Auvergne and Munster – being placed in the same group, Sale the apparent whipping boys. Steve Diamond’s side did lose all six games, including a 65-10 destruction in Limerick, but were competitive in all of their home games.
The LV= Cup campaign saw home wins over Scarlets and Wasps along with defeats at Leicester and (as previously mentioned) Newcastle, while Premiership form has been inconsistent. The Sharks have lost both of their last two games, at London Irish and most recently at home to Harlequins two weeks ago, 23-25, and are currently on a run of just one win from five games, that being a 23-6 home defeat of Gloucester in March. However, both Saracens (14-10) and Northampton (20-7) have lost in Salford in 2015. Wasps and Exeter have also returned south beaten this season, plus as expected London Welsh.
Those Sharks with a foot in both camps are three former Falcons academy players. Of the trio, only Darren Fearn played for the first team at KP, moving to Bedford in 2012 before joining Sale last summer. So far, the prop has only played four minutes for the Mancs, as a replacement at Leicester in the cup in November. Winger Charlie Ingall and back-five forward Josh Beaumont never made the Falcons’ senior side, but the former, son of former England and Question of Sport captain Bill, has earned plenty of plaudits in his 24 appearances (including 19 starts) this season.
The Falcons have made two changes from the team that lost narrowly to Gloucester. Calum Green and Adam Powell start in place of Josh Furno and Chris Harris, and Alex Tuilagi joins brother Andy on the (hopefully reinforced) bench along with Mike Blair and Richard Mayhew. The revitalised Rory Clegg continues at fly-half.
15 Simon Hammersley, 14 Alex Tait, 13 Adam Powell, 12 Juan Pablo Socino, 11 Sinoti Sinoti, 10 Rory Clegg, 9 Ruki Tipuna, 1 Rob Vickers, 2 Scott Lawson, 3 Kieran Brookes, 4 Calum Green, 5 Kane Thompson, 6 Mark Wilson, 7 Will Welch (c), 8 Ally Hogg.
Replacements: 16 George McGuigan, 17 Eric Fry, 18 Juan Pablo Orlandi, 19 Will Witty, 20 Richard Mayhew, 21 Mike Blair, 22 Alesana Tuilagi, 23 Anitelea Tuilagi.
Sale team: 15 Tom Arscott, 14 Tom Brady, 13 Johnny Leota, 12 Sam Tuitupou, 11 Mark Cueto, 10 Danny Cipriani, 9 Chris Cusiter, 1 Eifion Lewis Roberts, 2 Tommy Taylor, 3 Vadim Cobilas, 4 Jonathan Mills, 5 Nathan Hines, 6 Dan Braid (c), 7 David Seymour, 8 Josh Beaumont.
Replacements: 16 Marc Jones, 17 Ross Harrison, 18 Ciaran Parker, 19 Michael Paterson, 20 TJ Ioane, 21 Will Cliff, 22 Joe Ford, 23 Mike Haley.
Two wins to end the season would really give us a kick after another long losing run. A good omen is that before the game tomorrow, Mrs L and I will be nipping to see some friends in Chorlton. The last time we saw them was the day of the Falcons’ last win, away to London Irish in February.
(Follow The South Stand Choir on Twitter: @SouthStandChoir)