There is quite a cabaret going on at Sale these days: Steve Diamond, their head cook and bottlewasher, has been serving a touchline ban since February after giving the international referee Wayne Barnes too large a piece of his mind; the brutal sacking of Tony Hanks as head coach caused something of a stink; the spat with Gloucester over the possible recruitment of Bryan Redpath as Hanks' replacement shows no sign of abating – and now they have provoked another ruckus with this final regular-season game by naming a "weakened" side against opponents who would benefit materially from the decision.
All told, then, the impending arrival of the tempestuous Danny Cipriani from Australia should just about put the tin hat on it.
Diamond, though, was not remotely impressed by the allegations, accompanied by a veiled threat of disciplinary action by the administrators at Premier Rugby, over his selection on Saturday: 23 English-qualified players, many of them still wrapped in rugby's equivalent of swaddling clothes, and not a big-name foreign import in sight.
"If Premier Rugby wants to look at my selection, it should also look at their referee selection," he said, still spluttering over some of the calls made by the Leicestershire official Martin Fox, including the disallowing of an early try by the eye-catching young centre Will Addison. "In fact, I think it should concentrate on bigger issues altogether, like the avoidance of the salary cap."
Ah, the salary cap. Diamond is not alone in thinking that certain clubs – naturally, he was not quite up to naming them – are spending way above the limit on squad wages. (Five years ago there were those who wondered whether Sale were playing it strictly by the book, but that's another story.) There have been rumours for some time that, when it comes to salaries, the Premiership field is about as level as the upper reaches of Annapurna, but whether those who run the show have the wherewithal, or indeed the guts, to take action is anyone's guess.
What could not be disputed as Sale played their last game at scruffy old Edgeley Park – next up is a spanking new purpose-built stadium in Salford, praise the Lord – was that in the absence of the All Black midfielder Sam Tuitupou, the Samoan centre Johnny Leota, the Fijian lock Wame Lewaravu, the Russian forward Andrei Ostrikov and half a dozen top-notch Celts, their chances of presenting Saracens with a home semi-final by knocking Harlequins from first to third were a long way short of brilliant. A case for the Sherlocks at Premier Rugby? Absolutely not.
The fuss over Diamond and his player choices was, and remains, logically incoherent. Sale did not seek to deny that, by fielding this side, they passed the Rugby Football Union's threshold under the England Qualified Player scheme and picked up £80,000 in central funding. They also pointed out, reasonably, that there is no point the RFU incentivising clubs to pick English players if the people running the Premiership then punish those clubs for picking English players. To put it another way, how can Premier Rugby state, as it did last week, that a club should field the strongest available side for every league fixture – a side that would inevitably include a number of non-English players – while participating in the union's "home-grown is best" initiative? Double standards on that scale might be a genuine subject for inquiry by a Holmes.
Sale were quick to recall that Newcastle were the first to field an all-English match-day squad in a Premiership game, back in 2006. The Falcons had plenty of foreign internationals on their books at the time – Matthew Burke, Mark Mayerhofler, Owen Finegan, Colin Charvis – but declined to pick any of them for their final league match, with Leeds. The man in charge at the time? That would be Rob Andrew, who oversees the current system for the Rugby Football Union and sits on the all-powerful Professional Game Board. We can take it that he will support Sale on this one.
Besides, the northerners gave a very decent account of themselves. Addison, not yet out of his teens, scored a pearl of a try at the end of the third quarter, taking a difficult pass above his right shoulder on halfway and disappearing into the distance with a combination of swerves and sidesteps.
The visitors were pretty much done and dusted at that point, having opened up a 21-3 lead with a flurry of points either side of the interval, but had Fox not ruled out Addison's first touchdown after two minutes – he was adjudged to have pushed the visiting full-back Mike Brown as he hared after Mark Cueto's clever kick to the line – it might have been a different story.
"People like Addison, Rob Miller and Tom Brady are the stars of the future," Diamond said, with feeling. "We have all these English players coming through, most of them from our own academy; we have a new stadium awaiting us and new training facilities up and running; we have Cipriani coming back from Australia to join us; we're nearly breaking even financially. It's a case of happy days, surely. People should be congratulating us, not criticising us."
Much of which was supported by Diamond's opposite number, the Quins rugby director, Conor O'Shea, who pointed out that Saracens, the side with most to lose from a Sale defeat, had spoken all season about the virtues of squad rotation. Quins deserved their victory here, just as they deserved to finish top of the log after setting the pace for the best part of eight months. Sale? They deserved better than the half-baked criticism they have received from people trying to have it both ways.
Sale: Try Addison; Conversion Bell; Penalty Bell. Harlequins: Tries Care, Brown; Conversion Evans; Penalties Evans 4.
Sale: R Miller; T Brady, W Addison, L Burrell, M Cueto; T Bell, S Mathie (W Cliff, 72); L Imiolek (R Harrison, 50), M Jones (J Ward, h-t), H Thomas, K Myall, T Holmes, W Bordill (T Taylor, 52), D Seymour (capt), M Easter.
Harlequins: M Brown; T Williams, G Lowe, J Turner-Hall, S Smith; N Evans, D Care (K Dickson, 57); J Marler, J Gray (R Buchanan, 61), J Johnston, O Kohn, G Robson, M Fa'asavalu (T Guest, 62), C Robshaw (capt), N Easter.
Referee M Fox (Leicestershire).
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