Can Sale Sharks continue swimming towards the play-offs?

Alex Sanderson is hoping to lead Sale back into the play-offs
©Sale Sharks

Are Sale Sharks making waves again?

Director of Rugby Alex Sanderson is at the helm of a resurgence, steering the team towards greater heights with each passing game.

Following their gripping encounter against Harlequins, where they clinched a second successive bonus point win (37-31), the Sharks find themselves back in the thick of the race for a top-four finish.

Arron Reed's brace on his 100th appearance and Raffi Quirke's try on his 50th marked a day of celebration for the packed Salford Community Stadium. Yet, beneath the surface of these milestones lies a deeper narrative of strategic evolution and mental fortitude as Sale prepare for Sunday’s meeting with Newcastle Falcons.

“We look like we’re attacking dangerously at the moment which is where we wanted to be and I guess that layer of attack and intent to our game is encouraging at the right time,” Sanderson said.

“There’s been a shift in our mental approach to pulling the trigger at the right time and striking faster than what we were. George Ford coming back in has made a difference. Our quick ball allowed us to stay on top [v Quins]. We have to stay on top of a myriad of things but George has been a big influence with his attacking prowess.

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“There are other elements such as breakdown, speed of ball. It all starts with attack and the shape needs to tighten up some more for lines to have better depth and intent. When we carry helps with speed of ball.

“We’ve shifted that focus and we’ve seen Tom Curry talking earlier about breakdown and taking ownership which really helps. It’s rewarding, encouraging and makes us less predictable in the middle third, as we striked really fast and pulled the trigger at the right time.

“Curry’s increasing involvement is influential. As he’s getting more fit, he’s keeping players accountable and becoming a leader again where he can, and that’s more around the areas he’s best at such as breakdown, contact and the mentality needed for that.”

Sanderson also praised the unsung heroics of Sam Dugdale, whose stellar performance against Quins earned him the title of Player of the Match with an impressive 23 turnovers.

Dugdale's relentless work ethic and physicality exemplify the culture of excellence that Sanderson strives to create within the squad.

“He’s a superstar and performs well. He has been working on his craft for years. He brings a lot of physicality and his endeavour, application and work the coaches have put into him have made him a really good player.

“He provides a selection headache, he’s top of the tackle cannon and got to be there in terms of his work rate.

“Internal competition is what we need now and the weight of expectation that comes with it, he is meeting that challenge and doing well.”

Looking ahead to their upcoming clash against Steve Diamond's Newcastle, Sanderson remains wary of the influence of his predecessor but is determined not to let it overshadow their preparations.

“Dimes’ influence, we are aware of and don’t want it to influence our performance or preparation. It’s white noise and it’s been three years since he has been here however, he has been managing to effect conversations through the obvious intent that this is a game that they are targeting.

“No love lost there in terms of what we need out of this game to finish the season with recognition for our efforts. It still requires a win and enough for them to get some pride back. We commend them for continuing to battle despite not getting a win yet in the Premiership."

Sanderson also gave his thoughts on teams being beaten one week and then playing well the next after the Falcons were hammered 85-14 by Bristol Bears last Sunday.

“Scenarios like this are a myriad in this Premiership. It’s happened to us twice [losing to Exeter Chiefs 43-0 and then beating Gloucester + losing to Harlequins 36-3 and then beating Saracens].

“That’s definitely going to be there for them and we expect that. We have to back high-quality performances and there lies a challenge.”

Another challenge for Sale is claiming a victory on the road, something they haven’t achieved since mid-November. In addition to this, the Sharks have lost on their last two visits to Newcastle.

“November was a long time ago to get that away win,” added Sanderson. “We didn’t perform well against Gloucester and we had that bad spell from Christmas through didn’t we so if we are going to get that monkey off our back, what a time to do it.”

The Sharks reached the Premiership final last year and en route to Twickenham, they secured a home semi-final against Leicester Tigers.

With Sanderson’s troops currently nine points behind the top two, just reaching the play-offs seems to be the aim but the Sale boss was asked about the quality of the sides they are currently hunting down.

“We still see Saracens as the team to beat, all teams are in the running and you have to look at the consistency of [Northampton] Saints, Bath and Sarries (the current top three).

“They all have very good backs and number 10s who are able to win games through different methods, such as through their forward pack striking fast. They also have some of the best players right now [Handrè] Pollard, [Finn] Russell and Owen [Farrell], who are some of the best international game managers. They are dangerous teams in many aspects.

“Not to discount Leicester, as we have them coming up as well. They will be a difficult team to unpick.

“I think cohesion is king and those who have played together for a long time have the advantage. It’s about attitude, energy and mentality over game plan and technicalities. That’s what separates the good from the great.

“Looking forward to Sunday, we’ve definitely been much more intentional, real and honest, admittedly kick execution could have been better [v Quins]. The rest of the look-ahead is just about improvement and correcting our mistakes, just looking at how we can be better this week.”

Sanderson revealed he would make just one adjustment to their matchday 23 to face Newcastle and he was true to his word with Quirke making a return to the starting XV and Gus Warr switching to the bench.

As Sale gear up for their showdown at Kingston Park, Sanderson's words resonate with a sense of purpose and ambition.

With Leicester Tigers at home to come on May 10th before concluding with a trip to Saracens, all five points against a winless Newcastle may feel like a must if the Sharks are to keep swimming towards the play-offs.

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