Sale Sharks will be gutted at the cancellation of their Premiership Cup final on Sunday, a gala occasion that would have been blessed with a capacity crowd at the AJ Bell Stadium and, in the absence of any other sport to report on, almost blanket coverage.
They will take it in their stride though because the Sharks are a club that have learned to just keep “buggaring on” as Churchill once put it.
I’m not sure English Rugby in general and the Premiership in particular has ever really quite appreciated Sale and the minor miracle that has been going on in greater Manchester for nearly three decades now.
They haven’t won any silverware since their glorious Premiership winning year of 2006 and that’s a long time to go without any tangible reward, but with Sale the journey rather than the destination has always been part of the story.
They are trying to change that narrative but the cussedness of having to just survive for so many years and fly the flag for rugby in the North is a major part of their make-up. For many years current coach Steve Diamond never wavered from his stated objectives at the start of each season. Avoid relegation, challenge for top six. The harsh reality.
Stuck in the very heart of football land and indeed Rugby League country and for many years underfunded and under-resourced, it’s always been a struggle to attract big crowds and Sale have had to duck and dive just to maintain their Premiership status.
Yet not only have they achieved that for 26 straight seasons since winning promotion from Courage League 2 at the sixth attempt in 1994 – Bill Sweeney please note how England’s second tier hardened the Sale club up – they have also delighted in producing many distinctive players. They do it their way. The need to avoid relegation has dominated their professional existence but Sale have largely stuck to an attractive style of rugby, originally introduced by Paul Turner during his spell as coach. It remains in their DNA.
Off their own bat they have produced or honed the likes of Josh Baxendell, Steve Hanley, Charlie Hodson, Mark Cueto, Jason Robinson, David Rees, Richard Wigglesworth, Ben Foden, the Sanderson brothers and Magnus Lund. The brothers theme is continued in modern times with the James boys and Curry twins.
When Sale dipped into the transfer market they had to be prudent and canny because until recently cash was short and they often came up with slightly left field signings, players who had been under appreciated elsewhere, or perhaps were disgruntled or in one of two cases were considered difficult or high maintenance. Juan Marin Frernandez Lobbe, Sebastien Chabal, Dwayne Peel, Nathan Hines, Danny Cipriani, James O’Connor, Jason White, Faf de Klerk, Marland Yarde.
On occasions Steve Diamond looked to eastern Europe for bargains – Vadim Cobilas, Jan Machalek, Andrei Ostrikov, Kirili Kulemin – now it’s South Africa. And don’t forget that Spanish matador Oriol Ripol from their Premiership-winning side.
Sale have never been a fashionable club – not that they are bothered, they rather glory in that implied put down, but they have frequently been underrated and belittled and that does fester a little.
For me Sale’s Premiership winning team of 2005-06 was among the best ever, they topped the regular season table with ease and then dismissed a massively strong Leicester Tigers 45-20 in rubbish conditions in the final at Twickenham. An awesome, mean machine up front, Hodgson and Wigglesworth directing operations at half-back with Robinson and Cueto leading the charge out wide.
Yet you scarcely see mention of that team these days. We regale the great Tigers sides, Wasps, Bath and Saracens, but Sale circa 2006 were right up there. On a hunch I looked up the Sky Sport Premiership team of the season for 2005-06 and I wasn’t disappointed. Just one Sale player – flanker Magnus Lund, he of the Biblically long hair – got nominated. The praise was, and remains, rather grudging.
Philippe Saint-Andre’s team was the culmination of the one brief ‘golden era’ in the club’s modern day history, a triumph they built steadily towards which provides a blue print of sorts for modern day Sale.
It started with a huge bounce back in 2000-2001 when, 12 months after they had finished tenth in the Premiership, Sale finished second in the league and, in a busy season, also won the Parker Pen Shield, today’s European Challenge Cup. The unglamorous second tier competition was considered a nuisance and burden by some by Sale viewed it differently, a chance to grow the team under the radar and win a trophy.
Two years later Sale got to the final of the Powergen Cup – still a major competition in those days – and the following year they took a second Parker Pen Shield. They were on their way and next stop was the Premiership title itself. It was a classic progression which Harlequins pretty much mimicked a few years later en route to their 2012 Premiership title.
We await with interest to see if and when this final can be safely staged. Both clubs see it as a launching pad but for the time being the countdown has been delayed.