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Ford’s sparkling Premiership form is driving Sale’s late league onslaught
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Ford’s sparkling Premiership form is driving Sale’s late league onslaught

For all the various permutations that exist as the race for the Premiership semi-finals reaches its climax on Saturday, the equation is simple for Sale: victory at Saracens will seal their spot in the last four. They have the advantage of knowing that their destiny is in their own hands, even if the task that awaits them is sizeable.

That Sale have afforded themselves that luxury is no mean feat considering they were top of the table not long before Christmas but languishing in eighth spot a couple of months ago. If it has been an unpredictable season across the board then no side has been more capricious than last season’s losing finalists.

A tweak to their attack, spearheaded by George Ford, has brought dividends in the form of four wins from five matches since the long break during the Six Nations. That eight-week hiatus gave every side the chance to pause for breath, to take stock and to make necessary changes but for Sale there was considerable overhaul. Ford returned having played a key role in transforming England’s lacklustre attack in the early rounds of the Six Nations into what was a dangerous weapon against Ireland and, according to Sale’s director of rugby, Alex Sanderson, did much the same with the Sharks.

“He’s been magnificent, particularly how he came back from the Six Nations and has driven the group and taken so much on himself,” said Sanderson. “How he’s shifting our attacking mentality as he did with England … he’s been pivotal in our recent form of our team, and I think internationally as well. I’ve been mightily impressed by him.”

George Ford of England passes the ball during the Six Nations 2024 match between France and EnglandView image in fullscreen

Sale have scored seven try bonus points whereas the three teams above them have 10 but Sanderson adds: “Since the break we’ve clearly been a different side in how we’ve used the ball. I don’t think people rated us because over time we hadn’t proved that’s the style we want to play. But those who watched us would have watched us in depth over the last few games will see the shift.

“We’ve found consistency in terms of the playing squad and that always helps with form because it brings cohesion and cohesion is king. We could have fragmented at Christmas but we didn’t, we came together and found better form than we’ve had in the last three years.”

If Sale slip up against Saracens then the door is open for a number of other sides to reach the playoffs. Bath are expected to join Saracens and Northampton in the top three but should Sale lose, Exeter can clinch fourth with a bonus point win against Leicester. If that does not materialise then the winner of Harlequins’ shootout with Bristol – where try bonus points feel inevitable – would be in the box seat.

Sale’s task is made harder by the fact that Saracens could do with a win to make sure of a home semi-final and because the defending champions have hit ominous end-of-season form. That they are saying goodbye to a host of senior players that Sanderson used to coach during his time there only adds to the challenge on Saturday.

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“[It’ll be] highly emotional for them,’ he added. “You could argue there is more at stake for us but it will be like fever pitch, emotionally. You can overegg it and overreach sometimes but they are not that kind of a team. I think they’ll lean into it and put in a performance worthy of the lads who are moving on.

“It’s weekends like this that prove greatness. If we are going to be great it’s going to be because of the shift we’ve made since the Six Nations. That’s mainly by way of our attack.”

Source: theguardian.com