View from the South Terrace: Sale Sharks

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Some performances are remembered for their quality. Some results are remembered for their importance. Every now and again though, some nights are remembered for their pure emotion.

From a Blue and Blacks perspective the European Challenge Cup round of 16 win over Sale Sharks at the Arms Park on Saturday 1st April 2023 will be remembered for all three.

The news in the week that Cardiff Life President Peter Thomas had passed away brought on an outpouring of tributes, condolences, memories and sadness. Over a 70+ year association with the club as a supporter, player, administrator and chairman he had given more money, time and energy to Cardiff Rugby than anyone has ever or will ever give.

Reaction focused on his contribution to the Blue and Blacks, and the simple fact that the club would not exist without him, while also remembering a great family man who was kind and caring, with personal stories coming in from across Welsh rugby.

It was clear from the social media posts and quotes in the press pre-game that the players and coaches at Cardiff were hurting as much as anyone. This wasn’t just an out-of-touch blazer to them, but someone recognised as the heart and soul of the club, who invested in everyone at the Arms Park as people, first and foremost, before whatever role they held.

On the back of a campaign that has been mentally exhausting off the pitch the concern was that getting the emotional level right for Saturday night’s game would be very difficult. Would the 23 be too drained after a tough few days following the few months they had already gone through, or would they be too revved up and find proceedings tough against a full-strength and flying Sale outfit?

The answer? Well it was a masterclass from the Blue and Blacks on just about every level.

Dai Young got the team selection spot on, trusting the majority of the pack that had gone well in Zebre the previous week and opting for Rhys Priestland’s trusty right boot at full-back while releasing Tomos Williams and Jarrod Evans to play with freedom from half-back.

Up front the scrum was simply imperious. Corey Domachowski shot straight to the top of the Rugby World Cup bolter list and Keiron Assiratti continued the form of his life. It wasn’t just a dominant set piece, it was psychologically destructive to the point that the English side were opting for lineouts just to avoid the Rhondda men.

Teddy Williams came of age in front of our eyes to step up after Lopeti Timani had to depart inside the first two minutes, while James Botham and Thomas Young picked up their deadly flanker partnership from the first fixture block of the season, causing havoc on both sides of the ball. Taulupe Faletau was, well, Taulupe Faletau. Just oozing class.

In the backs it was Tomos and Jarrod at their scintillating best, running an attack that cut Sale apart. Mason Grady was pacey and abrasive, while Josh Adams was back at home playing on the left wing in a system that actually shows some offensive ambition.

And then we come to the absolute clinic which was Priestland. The 36-year-old rolling back the years to marshal the back field superbly against a kick-heavy counter attacking side, using all his experience to manage the kicking game and pin the opposition back, and even revving up the old wheels to skip past a few flailing defenders on transition.

Tactically the coaches got it spot on; kick long, chase hard, move Sale around and, ultimately, be brave. Emotion drove much of that but to get to the mental level required while still having the mindfulness and confidence to play a bit with ball-in-hand, even when the English team got some momentum behind them in the second half, was what led to the victory on the night.

Whether that can be maintained or repeated is to be considered on another day, for Saturday was all about doing Peter proud on the night his life was celebrated and legacy cemented with the naming of the Peter Thomas Stand in the presence of his family.

A performance fitting of the great man, and I’ve no doubt he was smiling down on another famous night of European rugby under the lights at the Arms Park.

The Last Dance rolls on to Treviso….

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