The Sharks have lost their bite

When Alex Sanderson took his Sale Sharks side to the Grand National last weekend, he had bet on the 7-1 winner, I Am Maximus. On the other hand, he also supported eleven other horses.

“So I came away with no money but I felt like a winner,” says the Sale director of rugby, who admits he is not a gambler. In the much more important race for the Premiership title, everyone is busy weighing up the odds in another crowded field.

Sanderson believes his team needs three wins in their remaining four games to reach the play-offs and retain a chance of a repeat of last season’s final outing.

Club co-owner Simon Orange believes four wins out of four are needed, with three bonus points. Number crunchers Oval Insights rated Sale as having just a 26 per cent chance of making the play-offs this week, with six clubs more likely to make it into the top four.

And then there’s Angela Traynor, the smiling face at reception at Sale’s performance center in Carrington, and also former chair of the supporters’ association, which still organizes fans’ outings.

“Ange is quite outspoken in speaking out when we haven’t performed well,” says Sanderson. “At the end of last week the club got together all the players who had babies, and there were six young fathers – there’s something in the water at Sale – and Ange is up there and she’s handing out presents, and as she stood there, I said ‘wanna tell you something?’

“And it was totally out of hand, but she says, ‘I believe in you, we believe in you, we can fucking do this’ and all the guys are standing around cheering and saying, ‘And you can go to every team meeting ‘. That’s just a special person in the organization who is on the way to where we want to go. But there is a belief and we feel like the crowd is behind us. If we are on the right track, who knows.”

Hopes were revived when Exeter were crushed 41-5 eleven days ago. Before that, Sale topped the league in December before losing four in the league to finish eighth this weekend. The margin for error is small, with seven teams on eight wins behind leaders Northampton.

As Orange tells i: “We are trying to expand our game and make some progress. The next four games will show whether we succeed in this.”

BATH, ENGLAND - MARCH 24: Manu Tuilagi of Sale Sharks reacts during the Gallagher Premiership Rugby match between Bath Rugby and Sale Sharks at Recreation Ground on March 24, 2024 in Bath, England.  (Photo by Harry Trump/Getty Images for sales sharks)
Hopes are fading for Sale Sharks this season (Photo: Getty)

Orange and his wife Michelle and co-owner Ged Mason also face annual losses of more than £4 million. They formed a team to play in the women’s league, but because players prefer to live in the south near the English Red Roses training camps, it is difficult to compete. They face a difficult decision about whether or not to continue.

The men’s team play Harlequins at home on Sunday before taking on winless Newcastle away, Leicester at home and Saracens away. Sanderson, the former Saracen, smiles ruefully: “Yes, that could be cruel.”

Off the field, Sale have played at Salford Community Stadium since 2012 (its naming rights deal with AJ Bell has ended). They embrace a fan-first mentality, but don’t give away free tickets because they believe it devalues ​​the brand. .

Instead, they seek an emotional connection through “closed promotions” like the “100 Club,” where local organizations provide ticket deals and player appearances. They want to be a disruptor and do things differently to traditional rugby.

Football and rugby leagues will always compete for playing space, even in their own backyard. Sell ​​ground share with Salford City Reds who entertain Sam Burgess’s Warrington in the Super League next week.

The best atmosphere for Sharks this season, according to the regulars, was the almost sell-out win over Saracens three days before Christmas. Then the ground was full for La Rochelle in the Champions Cup in January.

Sale consciously leaned on their northern grit and humour, and Sanderson said of that day: “The blue smoke, the haze, the chip grease, 10,000 Mancs shouting ‘Sale’ – it’s another level.”

But Sale lost, entered the Challenge Cup and were knocked out by Ospreys two weeks ago.

Yet Sanderson tells us i The attitude of the owners was the same as that of the supporters, with no pressure to support the 2023 Premier League final, which they lost 35-25 to Saracens. Sale also reached the semi-finals in 2021, for the first time since their only league title in 2006.

Instead, the momentum has been sought internally: the Exeter win was preceded by a player honesty session led by injured captain Tom Curry – the flanker was back in action this week, but there will be a decision on whether his season has already ended then it’s not over. the next fourteen days.

SALFORD, ENGLAND – MARCH 31: Sharks Director of Rugby Alex Sanderson speaks to his players before the Gallagher Premiership Rugby match between Sale Sharks and Exeter Chiefs at AJ Bell Stadium on March 31, 2024 in Salford, England.  (Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images for sale sharks)
Sharks director of rugby Alex Sanderson says there is no pressure to reach the final again (Picture: Getty)

Tom Roebuck, the rangy wing who made the England Six Nations squad without playing, scored three tries. Of the twelve frontliners who were injured earlier this season, nine were back.

Any squad featuring Bevan Rodd, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Cobus Wiese and Ben Curry should be taken seriously, while Sunday’s semi-battle between George Ford and Marcus Smith deservedly gets the highest rating in the Sharks’ PR.

But Sanderson freely admits that other areas have fallen short. “Because it was a young group, there might have been a suspicion that it would just happen again,” he says. “You have to find something special, something different that is going to motivate you, other than people just doubting you would do it, like last year.

“Coaching also definitely had a bit to do with it. We could have coached better. Because we were six and one at the start of the season, you have confidence that your methodology – what you do week in, week out – is delivering results.

“But as the team changes and changes – the dynamics of your platoon for example, from winning scrum penalties and mauls and a clean lineout ball – we weren’t quick enough to change the way we coached so that we could maintain dominance could keep. front side. We have addressed that and have been very honest as coaches.”

The mid-season swing clearly hit hard. Sanderson also regrets not doing more to adapt the training load to the different lead times between competitions.

“That’s the science of coaching,” he says. “The art of coaching is finding the edge to get us into the right emotional state without exceeding it. Now this really comes down to attitude and energy and mindset, and the intangibles. It’s a part of the game that I enjoy. And it’s the biggest challenge, but it’s something I’m sinking my teeth into, with the help of some of the older guys.”

For next season, Sanderson says the Premier League is wrong to bring the salary cap back to £6.4m, but Orange have promised Sale will spend this amount too. Manu Tuilagi leaves and is replaced by Fiji captain Waisea Nayacalevu.

On Sunday, as usual, an enthusiastic crowd will cheer the walk-in from the car park, a Madchester playlist (always a delight, for some of us) will fill the ears, a lot of kids from north-west clubs will be happily frolicking around the pitch – and coming On Monday, Ange might still believe in it.