After arguably the most exciting summer in Sale Sharks history that saw the long-term financial security of the club confirmed, a multiplicity of the squad's most important players re-signed to long-term contracts and rhetoric of challenging for the top-four bandied around almost ad nauseum, the latest era in Sale Rugby's long and illustrious history began with, well, a dud on Friday night as the Sharks crashed to a surprise 19-17 defeat at Kingston Park.
That victory was denied to Sale only by Dan Mugford pulling wide the game-winning final kick of the game does not represent an accurate summary of the game - in truth, had Mugford made the kick, it would have been an unfair result for both sides.
Whilst Newcastle executed to perfection a set game-plan that stymied Sale's bruising pack and fully utilised the devastating wing combination of Sinoti Sinoti and Verniki Goneva, the Sharks were listless and frequently bereft of ideas.
Ultimately, this was where the game was lost for Sale. Whilst Newcastle offered dynamism in attack and tenacity in defence (they successfully repelled nearly 30 Sale phases in their own 22 at the end of the first-half), Sale's entire gameplan revolved around attempting to out-muscle the opposition up front, and when that failed their inability to conjure up an alternative was, frankly, embarrassing.
To gain an understanding of how unimaginative Sale's attacking stratagem was, it took nearly 35 minutes before AJ MacGinty had the opportunity to run a set-backs move. 35 minutes. The situation was not helped by Sale's seeming unwillingness to run the ball back from deep when presented the opportunity a number of times early in the first half; I counted six occasions within the opening half-an-hour where possession was aimlessly kicked back to Newcastle under relatively little pressure.
The introduction of Dan Mugford for the second-half (as an injury replacement for MacGinty) proved to be something of a turning point, the 24-year-old finally breathing life into a torpid Sale offense with the ex-Nottingham man helping to orchestrate both of Sale's tries (Leota and McGuigan), but on the day it was Newcastle who appeared to be the side better-placed to mount a prospective top-four assault this season.
Sale did not leave Kingston Park empty-handed, their battling second-half display giving them a piecemeal consolation in the form of a losing bonus point, but there is no denying that this has to be seen as a bitterly disappointingly result. In recent years Newcastle has been one of the few grounds where Sale have enjoyed some away success and if the talk of a consistent push for the top-four is to transpire, fixtures like Friday's are absolute must-wins. The season is still nascent, of course, but one can't help but feel Sale have already blown a massive opportunity to establish themselves in the top-half of the table.
Sale next return to action on Friday 9th against Harlequins in their first home game of the season. Expect to see the squad rotated emphatically in the hopes of avoiding a similar disappointing result.
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