Sale believe they can find a way through tonight's awkward Heineken Cup match against Montauban, a cussed French outfit from the Midi-Pyrenees, without full contributions from the England internationals Mathew Tait and Andrew Sheridan, both of whom will start proceedings on the bench. Recent performances suggest they may be right.
They cannot, however, feel quite so sanguine over the loss of Philippe Saint-André, who yesterday confirmed his decision to stand down as director of rugby at the end of the campaign.
Saint-André, whose understanding of the art of rugby management is equalled only by his mastery of Franglais, will be succeeded by the former Wales flanker Kingsley Jones, currently his principal lieutenant at Edgeley Park. "I have a clear plan for taking this club forward," Jones commented, although his job will be made more difficult if, as expected, another influential Frenchman, the No 8 Sébastien Chabal, disappears through the exit door, and is followed by the brilliant All Black midfielder Luke McAlister.
Brian Kennedy, the Sale chairman and investor-in-chief, appointed Saint-André in controversial circumstances in mid-2004 – a move that led to the departure of Jim Mallinder, a highly popular full-back and captain whose coaching had started to bear fruit. But Kennedy knew a thing or two. Within a couple of seasons, Saint-André had guided the club to a first Premiership title, thereby breaking a Leicester-Wasps duopoly that had lasted seven years.
There was no firm indication of Saint-André's future plans, although he is confidently expected to return to France. At least two well-financed First Division clubs fallen on difficult times, Biarritz and Toulon, are certain to be interested, and Saint-André has long been of the opinion that if he is to fulfil his ambition of coaching his national team, he will need a measure of success in French club rugby. However, he may spend time working in the media, having carved a niche for himself as a popular television analyst.
"I am proud of the achievements of the team over the last few years," Saint-André said. "I know Sale are in safe hands with Kingsley, who, like me, has a passion for the club. I would particularly like to thank the supporters, who have shown great kindness and loyalty to me since my arrival. I hope to repay them with another trophy this season."
If it is a stretch to imagine Sale winning a first Heineken Cup title – their home defeat by Munster in the last round of pool matches hurt them badly – another Premiership triumph is well within their capabilities. They have a number of players with Test experience – Mark Cueto, Charlie Hodgson, Richard Wigglesworth, Chris Jones – who are unlikely to disappear on England duty when the Six Nations Championship comes round, and if these individuals steer clear of injury, they should guarantee the northerners a play-off place.
Wasps, who have had their own upheavals this week with the ownership of the club passing to the Wycombe Wanderers managing director Steve Hayes, are also up against it on the European front, having been thumped by Leinster last time out. Tonight's meeting with Edinburgh in the eerie vacuum of a nine-tenths empty Murrayfield is not quite the game they would have chosen as a first step towards getting their blighted season back on track, and they travel north without their captain, the hooker Raphaël Ibañez, who suffered a head injury while playing against Sale in the Premiership last month.
Several England internationals – Paul Sackey and Riki Flutey, Danny Cipriani and Tim Payne, Tom Rees and James Haskell – are back in the starting line-up, although their confidence is hardly at optimum level after the recent traumas at Twickenham. Edinburgh, well prepared by coach Andy Robinson, are feeling rather better about themselves after a couple of wins in the Magners League and may even start as marginal favourites.Reuse content