The 2014-15 season was a disappointment for Sale Sharks, let's not sugarcoat it.
Having been in contention for a play-off place as late in the season as the end of February, Sale's paper-thin squad, brought down by its inability to rotate the squad with anything resembling competitiveness, faltered miserably down the stretch winning only two of their final seven Premiership fixtures to finish the season in 7th place.
Now a 7th place finish in the most competitive domestic league in the world, especially considering Sale's meagre financial resources compared to their closest rivals (many of whom they finish above), is by no means a poor result. The underwhelming finish to the season however and the element of disappointment that resonated amongst Sale fans as the 2014-15 season came to a close comes because of an underlying sense of "what might have been".
At their best, Sale were a giant-killing, upper-mid table team, a team able to compete, frustrate and emerge victorious over play-off bound clubs whose financial capacities and chequebook prestige far outweighed Sale's own, for example, Saracens and Northampton both of whom Sale beat at home last uyear. When their squad permitted it, Sale were able to hang with every team in the league as a gritty, intelligent, hard-working club able to ground out results especially at their home in Salford. After a slow start to the season (two wins in their first six games), this approach allowed Sale, especially in the first half of the season, to beat the teams below them (home and away) and pick up wins in games historically they'd struggled to compete in (i.e. away at Harlequins).
However Sale's reliance and trust of only a small group of players (maybe 25-26 in total) to feature in their matchday 23 every week between the Premiership and Champions Cup would ultimately be their undoing. As the season progressed with (minor) injuries and knocks spreading throughout the squad, the effect of running a handful of key players into the ground for 80 minutes every week, with their backups and rotational options out of form or simply not trusted by the Sharks' coaching staff to compete in anything other than midweek Sale Jets games and meaningless LV Cup rounds, meant that by the end of the season, Sale's threadbare squad was quite simply, exhausted and could not muster up anything close to performances befitting a top-six Premiership club, especially against teams with larger squads with more effective rotation systems and fresher, healthier players.
In the end as rugby fans we could sit and play "what if" all day long without it ever impacting on our team's performance or history, however it is hard not to look back at Sale's 2014-15 season and not think "what if." What if Sale had been able to get off to a quicker start to the season and not throw away their ties with Bath (at home) and Gloucester (away) in the first two rounds of the season? What if some of the members on the Sale squad periphery had been trusted more throughout the season allowing Sale to have a game-ready bench to bring on against Leicester in December (by far, in my opinion, Sale's worst defeat of the season was throwing away that twenty point lead against Tigers to evcentually lose 32-30). What if Sale hadn't had to play a inexperienced mixture of youngsters and untested rotational options that would eventually be obliterated on their away trip to Wasps, the team that pipped Sale to the final Champions Cup place? And finally what if Sale had been able to pickup victories over London Irish and Harlequins in April, two games that were lost by Sale's costly mistakes and an ineffective gameplan, to keep their momentum building down the stretch of the season's end?
The Sale Sharks tam of 2014-15 was not a play-off team by any stretch. Sale's was a threadbare squad with more holes in it than a plate of Swiss cheese; lacking in genuine game-changing talent, reliant on a small group of players to perform exceptionally week-in, week-out, with the big-name signings of the previous summer crippled by ineffectiveness and loss of form, and without an ownership group capable of waving a magic wallet and rebuilding the squad on the fly.
Yet, somehow this was a team that for a long time looked capable of making the play-offs, and one that with a couple of close results going the other way, would be in the Champions Cup again this season. The big-name international acquisitions from abroad were for the most part, total busts, but in their stead the budding stars of Josh Beaumont and Mike Haley were able to burst onto the Premiership scene and make the No.8 and No.15 shirts respectively their own for (hopefully) the next decade. Despite having a front row that at times, was held together by little more than sellotape and Vadim Cobilas' omnipotent presence, Sale were still able to piece together a steady scrum that was the scourge of the Premiership for weeks on end with their devastatingly effective rolling maul and other forward techniques. A breakout campaign from Tom Arscott and Danny Cipriani's individual moments of brilliance were just two of the elements in a surprisingly dangerous backline attack that came together at times to be far more than the sum of its parts.
Call it unorthodox, unlikely or unrepeatable, a 7th place finish for Sale last season was about right. As a collective, Sale threatened the Premiership top-four when they had no right to do so and came close to securing a repeat Champions Cup place which would have been thoroughly deserved if not slightly surprising considering the investments being made by the likes of Wasps, Gloucester and Harlequins.
Sale were let down last year only by their own weakness in depth and inability to rotate the squad to match with their competitors and one wonders if they'd been able to do so and perhaps win the games that they lost because of their own mistakes rather than the merits of the opposition, then how much more fulfilling could Sale's season in 2014-15 have turned out.
"What if" will have followed and hung over Sale during these long, lazy summer months and it'll be a feeling they should look to put right. If Sale can learn from their mistakes of last season, who knows how strong Sale can be in 2015-16?
Part Two of SharkTanRugby's 2015-16 Sale Sharks Season Preview will be online by the end of the week and will look at where the Sale squad stand ahead of the 2015-16 season; how they match up with the rest of the Premiership's (and Europe's) teams; and a realistic estimation of where Sale could finish next season in both the Premiership and the Challenge Cup.