National Two Play-Off: Sale FC v Old Elthamians

Between the two play-off sides, this season they have scored 2068 points and won 51 games
©Old Elthamians

Sale FC and Old Elthamians go head-to-head in Saturday’s National Two Play-Off, with promotion to National One the prize for the winner at Heywood Road.

Victory for either Sale or OEs would be a significant moment for both clubs as they are coming into this huge clash looking to create history following successful campaigns.

Route to the play-off

Sale finished second in the regular National Two North season after securing 26 wins from their 30 games played.

Jonathan Keep’s side had just survived relegation this time last year in their first campaign in National Two, but their remarkable term has seen them secure second spot this time around.

The Manchester-based side sealed the home advantage last weekend with victory over Otley and they head into this play-off tie having won 15 of their last 16 matches. Their only defeat in that run came against newly crowned National Two North champions, Caldy.

Old Elthamians’ route to the play-off was a little less comfortable. Sale had sealed their place in the play-off just over a month ago, but OEs had to wait until the final day of the regular season to confirm their attendance at Heywood Road.

A thumping victory over Barnstaple last Saturday rounded off a six game winning streak which clinched their spot in the play-off and OEs are playing with a swagger at the moment having scored 315 points in their last five matches.

Views from the camps

Sale FC

Sale FC Head Coach Jonathan Keep admits it was a slight concern that his side would not secure home advantage in the National Two play-off.

The men from Heywood Road had clinched second place in National Two North after victory over Sedgley Park at the end of March.

“It was definitely a worry, but the players have managed to keep their focus week after week,” said Keep.

“I think statistically, the home side always has that advantage and that is the same on a league week. You always approach the season with a view to win all your home games at the very least and particularly like a day on Saturday when it is a cup final match, the home advantage will have an influence.”

He continued to TRU: “As a coaching team, it has been our job to take the pressure off the lads and make sure they are concentrating on the game in front of them.

“We have had a few injuries which have upset things slightly, but we seem to back be to full strength now at the right time. The lads have done a great job this season and over the last few weeks.”

Sale were promoted into National Two North in 2015 and battled against relegation last season, but strong performances towards the end of the campaign kept them in the division.

Keep’s side have turned their fortunes around in some style and now find themselves on the brink of National One after a phenomenal year.

“It has been a bit unexpected to a certain extent, but as the season went on, we grew in confidence and it just shows how important momentum is in sport,” Keep added.

"We had targeted to be around mid-table, but preferably in the top half of the table after a disappointing campaign last time out. Anything over and above that would surpass our expectations and we have done that.

“At the end of last season, we assessed ourselves and we just stripped back a few things to make it a little bit simpler and concentre on the core basics. We are certainly on the right side of things now and we are really looking forward to Saturday.”

Keep has been working alongside Chief Executive Mike Jefferson, who came into the club when it was struggling.

Jefferson began his affiliation with Sale in 1984 and has seen the club grow into one of the top performers in the National Leagues.  

Sale’s season has been an historic one and Jefferson is proud that his side are part of such an occasion this weekend.

“Taking on the role at Sale in some ways was a poison chalice and in other ways it was an opportunity which you couldn’t miss,” Jefferson told TRU.

“Sale FC has always been a sleeping giant for years. We had not performed on and off the pitch so I had a vision of where we wanted to go as a club.

“The word foundation is absolutely key to what we are doing here.  We are not aiming to do things and get results immediately. We had a two year plan to really try and push for National One, but we have done it in one year.

“As you can imagine, the phone has been on meltdown this week because of what we have achieved! Everyday has been manic, but these are the games we have wanted to have here.

“Everyone has got a smile on their face and there is genuinely no panic around the club in terms of on and off the pitch. I just see it as a win/win situation because we have succeeded our targets.  We will be delighted if we go up but of course I will be absolutely gutted as a sports fan if we would lose a game of this magnitude

“This is the biggest game I can remember. To come from the bottom and reach where we are now in this short space of time has been great and it is just a huge day for us.”

Old Elthamians

Old Elthamians director of rugby Gavin Lach has said that whatever happens this weekend in the play-off, his side have had a wonderful year.

OEs are set for the biggest match in their history this season after securing their highest ever finish following victory over Barnstaple last Saturday in National Two South.

“This is the best rugby I have seen played by an OEs side during my seven years here,” said Lach. “I didn’t expect us to have the season which we have had.

“We had a few turning points when we went away to Stortford and won in round four then we thumped Taunton two weeks later and after that I thought we might have something growing here.

“But we got a few injuries and we got a bit unlucky with a couple of decisions that went against us so we ended up hanging on to Chinnor’s coattails until we managed to capitalise on their mistakes.”

“This year shows just how far we have come so no matter what happens in the play-off if we get beaten 100-0 by a very good Sale side, what we have done this season to put this club on the map has been brilliant.”

OEs, who have won 14 times away from home this season, travel to Heywood Road tomorrow with a place in National One up for grabs and Lach insists that home advantage makes Sale favourites for this clash.

“Let’s be philosophical about this,” he added. “They are at home. There is some people talking about a crowd of 1500-3000 people on various bits of social media, depending on what you believe.

“They have got a massive tie in with Sale Sharks and also they have a lot of experienced players who have played at a higher level.  They are top quality side, but I do think a play-off should be played at a neutral ground.

“However, the rules are that the side with the most amount of points hosts the play-off and Sale have performed well to gain that home advantage, but in my eyes, they are favourites for this game and that is not me talking them up, that is me being honest about it.”

OEs head north this weekend having scored over 1,000 points this season on route to securing 25 wins, but Lach just wants a performance from his side as they aim to create history.

Lach added: “I know it is a very old cliché, but it is has been an absolutely normal week. The only thing we have done different this week is that I brought the lads pizza! Other than that, we have kept everything the same because at the end of the day it is a game of rugby.

“Sam Howard and I have been keen to stress that it has been one week at a time for us. Everything has gone OK up to this point and we have delivered as a side over the last month or so.

“I just hope we perform. Look, we are a decent side and I just hope we don’t freeze on the day in front of their home support. I hope for the boys’ stake and the way we have played in the last five or six weeks we perform and give our strong travelling support something to shout about.”

National League Rugby