Posted in match reports

View from the armchair: Exeter 40 Sale 30

Back in the mists of time, when Dimes first returned to take over at a struggling club, there was much talk of “year zero” in the rebuilding process. This season, for the first time since then, I get a real feeling that this genuinely is year zero and that we will look back on this year as a foretaste of the greatness to come.

Now, I could put on my long-suffering Sale supporter “gloomy cynic” hat and say “yeah, don’t count your chickens: remember the season after the success of 2005–6?” but I don’t think it’s the same. There’s something new here, something we haven’t seen before, not with St. André, not with Dimes and certainly not with Brewer or Jones. It’s something that’s stalking the corridors at Carrington and Salford, tossing out phrases like “golden unicorn” and “Captain America”.

I listened to the interview he did with the podcast “The Good, The Bad and The Rugby” and I finally realised what’s different about Alex Sanderson. Listen to some of the things he says – if they’d come out of the mouth of some middle manager at your workplace, you’d be thinking, “ohferfuxake, stop it with the trendy bollocks talk”. But when Alex says it, you’re like, “yeah, cool, let’s do it”. And here’s why: your middle manager sees an easy, pre-programmed set of procedures to improve productivity, and all that’s needed is to make the people fit into those procedures. But Alex seems to see a set of principles, which he can adapt to fit to the people around him and help them make themselves more productive.

Add to that, that he could probably make an absolute mint on the motivational speaking circuit and you’ve got a recipe for a team that’s going somewhere great, and doing so in an organic, sustainable way (if I can borrow a bit of corporate bollocks-speak for a second). Not bought-in success that fades after a season in the sun, but a deep-rooted culture that brings out the absolute best in everyone and makes something that’s so much more than the sum of its parts.

As for the game just gone – yes, I’m disappointed, but not downhearted. It’s the disappointment of reaching for the stars and grabbing the moon, not the disappointment of the underachiever. We can speculate on what might have happened had Manu caught Capstick’s shoulder and stayed on the field (or if Foley had decided there was no mitigation…). We can wonder what heinous crime a prop must have committed for the penalty to be awarded to the one measuring his length face-down in the grass. We can – and probably will – chew over the ‘what ifs’ till the cows come home but, to paraphrase CP Scott, “comment is free, but facts are what they are, get over it and move on”.

So, let’s look forward.

What has really stuck out for me, not just from this game, but from the season as a whole – certainly since January – has been the emergence of the home-grown talent. Quirke, Rodd, Ashman, Wilkinson, Harper, Dugdale, Postlethwaite, Reed, Roebuck, Doherty…

That’s an impressive list of young players, all of whom have stepped up to the cliché and made a case for themselves. And that goes to what I said above about sustainable growth. In a couple of years, I expect mention of most, if not all, of those names to be met with a response “yeah, he’s good”, not “who? can’t say I’m familiar with him”.

The likes of Faf, Manu and Jean-Luc have, rightfully, been the names in the papers this season, but give it a season or two…

Let those “kids” absorb what they can from the big names, learn and progress under the best tutelage there is, then push on and achieve even greater heights from standing on the shoulders of giants.

If this team have massively exceeded our expectations for this season, they’re going to have to improve even further to meet next season’s. No standing still here, improvement will be demanded of all, top four again as a minimum; top two for preference. Quarter finals in Europe at least – on merit, this time, and not from the vicissitudes of cancelled matches.

Talking of Europe, given what look to be three-team groups, with two progressing, and given that we should get a decent seeding, not making the round of 16 would be a massive slip-up. But, with that round being over two legs, I would back us to progress, and if we can do that with a favourable draw…

I am really looking forward to next season and not just because it should be at least 90% of the way back to normality, but because I am genuinely excited to see how far Axe can take this team, given a full preseason and a whole regular season. I’m looking forward to taking up my accustomed spot in the south stand, to freezing my toes off on a bitter Friday evening in January, to loudly questioning the referee’s knowledge of the laws and, most importantly, to enjoying the company of friends that I’ve barely seen in fifteen months.

So, yes, a bit disappointed that they couldn’t quite overcome the Exeter juggernaut, but happy at the progress and the potential that they’ve shown and eager to see it continue.

It’s a shame, too, that we won’t be going to Twickenham next week after such a long, fifteen-year gap.

So I suppose we’ll have to be content with a sixteen-year gap.



Photographer and science geek. Rugby fan (Sale Sharks).