Sanderson’s Sale will be facing off against the Saints with the top spot in the Premiership at stake.
The match between arlequins and Gloucester at Twickenham is expected to have the largest audience this weekend, with over 75,000 tickets already sold. However, the game between Sale and Northampton at a sold-out Franklin’s Gardens is likely the most intriguing fixture of the final round of the 2023 Premiership season.
The Sharks, who are vying for the title, achieved a satisfying win against Saracens, the team that beat them in the previous season’s final, just three days before Christmas. Their director of rugby, Alex Sanderson, has expressed his determination to surpass their previous performance next summer. “We are determined to return there,” he declared. “We’ve had a glimpse, but now I want more than just a glimpse.”
The victor of Sale’s match against the in-form Saints will rise to the top of a highly competitive table, at least until Johann van Graan’s Bath, who were at the top during Christmas, aim for a win against Leicester on Sunday.
Northampton, led by Phil Dowson, have won five consecutive matches, defeating Gloucester, Saracens, and Harlequins in their domestic league and Glasgow Warriors and Toulon in the Champions Cup in recent weeks.
Following Exeter’s win against Bristol on Friday, both the Chiefs and Sale have now secured seven victories. Meanwhile, Bath and Saints have each won six matches. According to Sanderson, prop Ross Harrison has played a crucial role in their strong performance during the first half of the season.
The Sharks’ strong performance in the scrum played a crucial role in their 22-20 victory over Sarries. Sanderson designated the front-rower, who will be starting on Saturday alongside Luke Cowan-Dickie and Nick Schonert, as his “captain of energy.”
“We have been placing a lot of emphasis on energy exchanges,” stated Sanderson, the reflective coach who implemented a “mind gym” for his team at the Sharks’ headquarters. “Extensive research has been conducted on how to sustain energy and what those exchanges entail. They can take various forms, but I have appointed him as the captain of this aspect. I asked him, ‘Can you be the leader of energy?’ and he has been actively promoting it. This benefits him because it keeps him engaged in the game and focused on the present.”
Perhaps fittingly, Harrison’s main interest outside of rugby is sleeping. Those who are quick to dismiss his title as meaningless psychological jargon should take into account Sale’s improvement under Sanderson. Their relentless displays, combining physicality with aggressive offense and defense, along with their success in the current season, make it likely for them to return to Twickenham next June.
Sanderson, who never avoids responsibility, stated that it is his duty to motivate his team for the challenging match against Northampton. Northampton has made eight changes to their team.
Is it their responsibility to be motivated every week?” he asked. “In the past, it was expected that players would take charge of their own mindset, even though we provided them with direction, game plans, and coaching. However, I don’t agree with that. I see it as a way for coaches to avoid taking accountability. Our goal is to equip them with the necessary mental tools and skills to succeed.”
Sanderson was quick to praise Saturday’s opponents, especially Alex Coles who will be making his 100th appearance at lock. He acknowledged that Northampton is currently the top team in both Europe and the Premiership, and there is a lot of talk about their physicality, which is something Sanderson’s team also prides themselves on. He sees this match as a head-to-head battle and an opportunity to set the tone for the new year. This adds an extra level of significance to the game.
Over the past year, Gloucester and their director of rugby George Skivington have faced challenges. This has led up to their highly anticipated match against Quins on Saturday evening. They recently lost at home to the Saints and currently have a record of two wins, placing them second from the bottom.
The year of 2023 has been difficult, to be frank,” Skivington stated after announcing a changed front row consisting of Jamal Ford-Robinson, George McGuigan, and Kirill Gotovtsev for the match against Harlequins. “There have been some positives, but not as many in the Premiership.”
With Argentina’s Santi Carreras at full-back, Louis Rees-Zammit of Wales on the wing and Scotland’s Adam Hastings orchestrating matters at fly-half, the Cherry and Whites do not lack attacking quality. “This is probably the first moment in 2023 when we’ve got about 75%-plus of our squad fit,” Skivington said. “No excuses, but it’s not been that enjoyable a year.”
Regarding the team’s goals for 2024, he stated: “Our main focus is to regain our identity. At the very least, we should not be doubted for our defense and effort. Our ultimate goal is to reclaim the ferociousness that defines us.”