Fixture: Sale Sharks v London Irish
Competition: Gallagher Premiership, Round 18
Date: Friday 25th February 2022
Stadium: AJ Bell Stadium
Sixth-placed London Irish travel to Manchester for a Friday Night Lights fixture against Sale Sharks this Friday evening.
Alex Sanderson’s Sharks find themselves two points and a place behind the Exiles in the Gallagher Premiership ladder, having held onto a one-point lead for the final quarter at to beat Northampton Saints 22-21 at Franklin’s Gardens last weekend.
With the average winning margin in Round 17 being just three points across the league, Irish edged out a thriller of their own at the Brentford Community Stadium, as Paddy Jackson’s late penalty ensured all five points against Joe Shaw’s Saracens side.
Irish also eclipsed last season’s win tally in the league last Saturday, a marked sign of the significant progress of Declan Kidney’s team after he credited his side’s ability to ‘stay in the fight’ in that victory over Sarries.
Currently on a five-game winning streak, Sharks have lost just once in all competitions at the AJ Bell Stadium this term, in comparison to three times at the same stage of the season last year.
Honours ended even when the two teams met in Round 2 earlier this season – a typically defiant second-half display from the Exiles saw them fight back from 17 points down to draw 31-31, thanks to tries from Tom Parton (2) and Curtis Rona.
The boss – Alex Sanderson
One-time Sale Sharks captain Alex Sanderson returned to the North-West to succeed former team-mate Steve Diamond in 2021, assuming his novel Director of Rugby post.
In the first few months of his reign, Sanderson beat London Irish in the regular season en-route to ending Sale’s 14 year absence from play-off rugby, ultimately falling short to Exeter Chiefs in the semi-finals.
A back injury whilst aged just 26 at Saracens cruelly ended Sanderson’s short playing career, but the back-row forward’s zeal for the game, and particularly defence, was recognised by those at Sarries.
Going on to anchor the famous ‘Wolf Pack’ to five Premiership titles and three Champions Cups as Defence Coach, Sanderson will be determined to evolve similar success at the AJ Bell Stadium.
One to Watch – Arron Reed
Former Irish centre Fergus Mulchrone now oversees the Sharks’ prolific Academy which has produced the likes of the Bevan Rodd, Raffi Quirke and Ben and Tom Curry – and Arron Reed looks set to be the next in line to have the spotlight shone on him.
Starting all of Sale’s last six games, the 22 year-old winger has seven tries in seven starts this season and five scores in his last five appearances, contributing to his eight-try haul overall this term.
Having spent his early career with Sale FC and the Sharks’ Sevens and A League teams, the Chester native’s form of late is no fluke, having touched down four times in just six games last season.
Reed has averaged close to 13 metres per carry this season and has beaten 14 defenders whilst doing so, the acceleration and aerial prowess shown in his try against Northampton Saints last week enabling his résumé of impressive statistics.
Classic Encounter – Sale Sharks 20, London Irish 34 – April 16th 2011 – Aviva Premiership
Steffon Armitage’s try at the death confirmed London Irish’s last win in Manchester back in 2011 – with Toby Booth’s men walking away with all five points from the one-off fixture at the Reebok Stadium.
Topsy Ojo’s anticipation was the main ingredient for the Exiles’ opener, intercepting Charlie Hodgson’s pass before team-mate David Paice bagged his third try in as many outings on the half hour mark.
Daniel Bowden’s fine solo effort and Tom Homer’s consistent kicking gave Irish a 21-point cushion at the break, but the Sharks were not going to go out quietly on the big occasion, with lock Sean Cox then crashing down.
His second-row partner Wame Lewaravu was next on the scoresheet to bring Sale to within seven and give the home crowd hope – but Armitage’s tight converted score around the fringes set Irish clear in the dying embers.
Tries: Sean Cox, Wame Lewaravu
Conversions: Charlie Hodgson (2)
Penalties: Charlie Hodgson (2)
Tries: Topsy Ojo, David Paice, Daniel Bowden, Steffon Armitage
Conversions: Tom Homer (4)
Penalties: Tom Homer (2)
Sale Sharks Director of Rugby Alex Sanderson conceded that his team ‘probably should have lost’ despite coming out 22-21 victors at Franklin’s Gardens, but explained the planning behind key moments in the match.
"You can only play as well as the opposition allow you to, and that was probably our worst performance in four or five weeks,” Sanderson divulged.
"But the old cliché stands that if you can play badly and win, you're in a good place, so we're in a good place.”
George Furbank’s missed penalty late on proved to be a decisive moment, but Sharks’ first and third tries from Arron Reed and Rohan Janse van Rensburg respectively were well executed sequences.
"We work a lot on our kicking game and we work hard on judging it so it's not luck, it's training and hard work that paid off in some of those high balls."
(Preview compiled by Ryan Fitzgerald-Nolan)