With Sale failing to progress past the group stages of both the European Champions and LV Cups, their focus for the final two months of the season rests solely upon their domestic campaign in this season's Aviva Premiership. With that in mind its time to assess how Sale's 2014-15 campaign has gone so far and what results from their last five games of the season and final league position would constitute a successful season.
The Season So Far
With 17 rounds gone in this season's Aviva Premiership, Sale currently sit a comfortable 7th with nine wins and 43 points and are on track to compete in the competition playoff for the final ECC place against the 8th placed Pro12 and Top14 teams. Still firmly entrenched in the battle for the automatic European qualification places and the top-six/four however, the Sharks trail 6th place Wasps by only five points although they themselves only sit four points ahead of Harlequins in 8th. Unique to this season however is the fact that every team from Exeter to Sale are all in the midst of a battle for the top-six with only 10 points (two bonus points wins) separating Chiefs in 2nd and Sharks in 7th (and only a further six points separating Sale and Gloucester in 9th). Sale's performances this season have ranged from the sublime (a 20-7 victory over Northampton) to the dire (41-16 loss away to Wasps) although throughout Sale have played a refreshingly expansive and creative brand of attacking rugby that has seen them score the 6th most tries and pick up the (tied for) 5th most bonus points in the Premiership this season. A string of wins over the next five games for Sale could still see them feasibly qualify for the top-four and a play-off place (although gaining zero points in consecutive weeks earlier this month at Leicester and Bath make play-off qualification extremely unlikely) whilst a number of losses could see both Harlequins and Gloucester leapfrog the Sharks.
The Run In
Simply put, the next five rounds are massive for Sale's season. Let's take a look at who they have scheduled:
I would expect (although I know this is a dangerous game to play) Sale to have enough to beat Gloucester, Falcons and Irish, especially with Michael Paterson, Marc Jones and their trio of internationals soon returning to the first team. The Quins and Chiefs games are harder to predict however. Sale have shown enough ability and depth across all three of their games against Exeter and Harlequins in the last 12 months to produce three quality wins and could do so again, however both of these opponents contain substantially more quality and coherence within their respective squads and should both be much sterner tests of Sale's ability.
A Successful Season?
With the table as close as it currently is, it is expected Sale will need at least three, possibly bonus point wins, to finish either sixth or 7th and enter the ECC next season. So what would constitute a successful 2014-15 season for Sale Sharks? Considering their indifferent start to the season (two wins out of their first six Premiership games) and the relative lack of investment Sale are able to make into their playing squad compared to the likes of Wasps, Bath and Saracens - their fellow rivals for the top-six - I would argue that European qualification by any means, finishing either in the top-six or 7th, would be another hugely successful season for Sale Sharks especially when the monetary and attendance benefits it comes with are factored into play. Indeed a top-six finish for the second consecutive year and third time in four seasons would once again go a long way in helping Sale to climb towards financial sustainability and compete in an increasingly money and market driven league.
What would you consider a successful season for Sale this year? Leave a comment below or tweet (and follow) me @SharkTankRugby on Twitter. Oh and don't forget to listen to the brand new SharkTankRugby podcast here.