Advertisement

Agents of chaos Quins come up just short in another crazy game

Raffi Quirke of Sale Sharks celebrates scoring a try
Raffi Quirke turned the tide of Harlequins' comeback when Sale were down to 14 men - Jan Kruger/Getty Images for Sale Sharks

Sale 37 Harlequins 31

Harlequins, the Premiership’s pre-eminent agents of chaos, fell just short of engineering yet another comeback in a 10-try, topsy-turvy defeat that ensures that Sale Sharks remain firmly in the play-off hunt.

James Dyson has yet to invent anything that can blow as hot and cold as Quins do and, after living by the sword in their thrilling wins over Bath, Glasgow Warriors and Bordeaux, here they felt the other side of that particular equation. Having trailed 15-0 and 25-10, Oscar Beard’s try brought them to within one point against the 14 men of Sale with Ben Bamber in the sin-bin. But then Tom O’Flaherty charged down Andre Esterhuizen straight from the restart allowing fellow replacement Raffi Quirke to score on his 50th appearance for the club. Six minutes later, Rob Du Preez’s peach of a pass allowed Arron Reed to score his second try on his 100th appearance.

Against any other team, a 13-point advantage with 90 seconds remaining would suggest victory was secure. But not against Harlequins, particularly when George Ford made the mistake of showing Cadan Murley the outside channel. The electric winger ripped down the touchline before passing for replacement Luke Northmore to reduce the gap to six.

Luke Northmore of Harlequins breaks clear to score their fifth try
Luke Northmore's late try for the visiting side made Sharks sweat at the end - David Rogers/Getty Images

There were seven seconds remaining when Ford took the restart and Harlequins started slowly marching their way up field before full back Joe Carpenter swooped to force a jackal penalty that was met with a wave of relief around the AJ Bell Stadium that was particularly pronounced in Sale’s coaching box.

“It was really squeaky bum time,” Alex Sanderson, the Sale director of rugby, said. “They do that every week. We said it at half-time and even pre-game that we would have to work harder than them for 80 minutes. We had to work harder for 83 minutes in the end. I’m proud of that. Proud of the five points and how we are attacking. Not so happy with how we failed to control the middle of the field. We lost a few of the kicking battles. I think we can work around the corner defensively and that would have prevented a couple of tries so I wouldn’t have lost some years of my life in that last five minutes.”

It was effectively win-or-bust for Sale, who move up to sixth, three points outside the top four. They have a favourable run-in too with Newcastle away, Leicester at home and Saracens away although Sanderson believes they will need three wins to secure a spot at the big dance.

Northmore’s try did at least secure Harlequins a second bonus point that leaves them a point behind Bristol Bears in fourth and ensured head coach Danny Wilson was reasonably satisfied. “That late try gave us two points from this match so then do you secure those two points or do you go for it?” Wilson said. “With this club, there is only one answer, so we went for it but just came up short. But the damage had been done before. We’ve been saying all season that it is going to come down to bonus points, so to get two of them away from home is great. But the frustration is that we scored 31 points away from home and still lost the match.”

Harlequins seemed to be suffering from a Bordeaux hangover after conceding two tries in the first six minutes to flankers Ben Curry and Sam Dugdale. Both were excellent throughout, particularly in limiting the effectiveness of Chandler Cunningham-South who was rampant in the Champions Cup quarter-final. “He was Shark bait this week because of the amount of momentum he gave them last week,” Sanderson said. “You give Quins get a bit of momentum and then you are chasing shadows.”

Sam Dugdale scores
Sam Dugdale goes over for Sale's second try - Jan Kruger/Getty Images for Sale Sharks

This is exactly what happened in the second quarter of the game when Sanderson says Sale fell into the “tumble-dryer” as Harlequins twice engineered overlaps on the right, both expertly finished by Louis Lynagh. But right on half-time, Ford’s long mispass was instantly fed back inside by Curry for Reed to finish in the corner. A Ford penalty just after the break stretched Sale’s lead to 25-10.

There seemed to be neither rhyme nor reason to how momentum shifted as first Cunningham-South got free down the left and fed Murley for a score before centre Oscar Beard crashed over from short range after Bamber’s yellow. But just as quickly as Harlequins had control than they lost it with the vastly underrated O’Flaherty playing a prominent role in creating scores for Quirke and Reed.

“To be fair to them, this is the third week they have had to really fight to stay in the game and almost win it,” Sanderson said. “When you are winning or losing by a point, those games even themselves out, Whether it was sod’s law or the fate of the universe when you are pushing it close again this week were the ones that came out with the outcome.”

Scoring sequence

5-0, Curry try; 7-0, Ford con; 12-0, Dugdale try; 15-0, Ford pen; 15-5, Lynagh try; 15-10, Lynagh try; 20-10, Reed try; 22-10, Ford con; 25-10, Ford pen; 25-15, Murley try; 25-17, Smith con; 25-22, Beard try; 25-24, Smith con; 30-24, Quirke try; 32-24, Ford con; 37-24, Reed try; 37-29, Northmore try; 37-31, Evans con.

Match details

Sale Sharks  J Carpenter; T Roebuck (T O’Flaherty, 58), R du Preez, M Tuilagi, A Reed; G Ford, G Warr (R Quirke, 43); B Rodd (S McIntyre, 58), L Cowan-Dickie (T Taylor, 58), J Harper (W John, 52), C Wiese, J Beaumont, B Curry (B Bamber, 54), S Dugdale, JL Du Preez  (H Andrews, 77).
Sin-bin  Bamber 55.

Harlequins  T Green; C Murley, O Beard (L Northmore, 62), A Esterhuizen, L Lynagh (J Evans, 69); M Smith, W Porter (D Care 52); J Marler (F Baxter, 50), S Riley (J Walker, 50), D Lewis (S Kerrod, 50), I Herbst, S Lewies, C Cunningham-South (T Lawday, 73), W Evans, A Dombrandt .

Referee Tom Foley.  Attendance  9,395.

Broaden your horizons with award-winning British journalism. Try The Telegraph free for 3 months with unlimited access to our award-winning website, exclusive app, money-saving offers and more.