A 15-0 start, later followed by a 23-10 lead, were both wasted as Sale crashed to a 24-23 defeat at home to bottom-of-the-table Bristol Rugby on Sunday afternoon, their eighth consecutive defeat in all competitions.
The loss, a frankly abysmal result given the importance riding on the New Year’s Day clash following Sale’s downturn in form over the last two months, is now conclusive proof that the Sharks’ 2016-17 season will now only be defined by their ability to avoid relegation, a scenario that has become frighteningly palpable given that 11th place Worcester also won today, 21-17 over Harlequins.
As of Sunday night, Sale sit 10th on 19 points with only Worcester (14) and Bristol (12) below them and Gloucester an increasingly comfortably six points above them in 9th. And whilst the two-win, eight-point swing that would see Bristol leapfrog Sale and condemn the Sharks to a season in the Championship is still a sizeable proposition for the former, if current form continues Sale will assume the mantle of relegation favourites.
Despite admirable performances from James Mitchell and Sam James – the latest combination rolled out on the Sharks’ revolving half-back platform – tries from Denny Solomona, Johnny Leota and a first-half penalty try were nullified by touchdowns from Tom Varndell, Rhodri Williams, Max Crumpton and nine points from Jason Woodward as Bristol mounted a 14-point second-half comeback.
And whilst this was unsurprisingly Sale’s most complete performance for over two months, to have failed to record anything more than a consolatory losing bonus point in a potentially season-defining fixture, and to have once again been unable to show the prerequisite composure to close out what should have been a comfortable victory, shows how farcical this season has become.
The positives on show was that Sale appeared to have finally regained a semblance of attacking shape and structure with Sam James back at fly-half with Mike Haley also turning in an impressive cameo when assuming playmaking duties. Furthermore, Ross Harrison, Rob Webber and Halani Aulika continued their collective august form, James Mitchell looked comfortable starting in the Premiership and Neil Briggs really enjoyed the chanting emanating from the South Stand.
But Sale once again showed a lackadaisical sense of equanimity despite their healthy lead and superior play for the majority of the 80 minutes, gifting Bristol a try immediately after Johnny Leota had touched down through aimless territorial kicking, woeful defensive positioning and tackling. And following Williams’ touchdown, the Sharks simply collapsed, never threatening the Bristol tryline again and conceding the game-winning try from a Bristol rolling maul minutes later.
Unfortunately this is not a new experience for Sale and gargantuan questions must now be asked of Steve Diamond’s position as Director of Rugby. It is clear Sale have the players and the collective talent to be a successful – or lower-mid table side comfortable shorn of the relegation places - in the Premiership, even if Diamond’s external recruitment for this season has proven thus far to be more bust than boom. But the same issues that have plagued Sale all season – and for most of Diamond’s four-year tenure – are once again apparent, there is an embarrassing lack of leadership, tactical direction and composure under intense pressure within this current Sale team and the buck must stop at Diamond who does not appear capable of implementing the game management structure necessary for Sale to comfortable see out games.
It is clear that in recent seasons Diamond has worked wonders on his old stomping ground and frankly, helped Sale to over-achieve whilst the teams around them (Harlequins, Gloucester etc.) have under-achieved. But the Premiership has evolved and Sale have not. And unless drastic changes are made immediately – be it an influx of mid-season signings to fix the glaring deficiencies in the current Sharks roster or a re-shuffle in the coaching setup (for instance bringing in someone to serve as a head coach under Diamond and revise the weekly game-management strategy) Sale are in significant danger of falling out of the Premiership.
This was not a scenario feasible when Sale lost to Gloucester, or Exeter, or Saracens or even Northampton. But with Sunday’s loss, it’s time to press the panic button.
Follow The Shark Tank on Twitter for more news, analysis and opinions on all things Sale Sharks.