Sale's grand plan for northern sales push hit by unfair local competition

Club had hoped for 20,000-strong crowd at Reebok fixture – but then along came the Manchester derby

It seemed like a good idea at the time: a northern version of club rugby's "big game", along the lines of the regular productions at Twickenham and Wembley, the two biggest sports arenas in mainland Britain. Sale did not believe it was quite the moment to take a Premiership match to neighbouring Old Trafford, the third-largest venue in terms of crowd capacity, but the Reebok Stadium in Bolton looked and felt about right – not massive, but not exactly small either. If they could just pull in a crowd of 20,000-plus, they might, with the grace of God and a following wind, strike a significant blow for the union game in one of its most difficult commercial marketplaces.

Then, the FA Cup happened. More precisely, an FA Cup semi-final between Manchester City and... wouldn't you just know it? Manchester United, with an evening kick-off time all of a quarter of an hour before the scheduled start of Sale's long-planned contest with London Irish. When it comes to sport in the North-west, a Manchester derby – particularly one of the knockout variety – robs everything else of its relevance. And by way of making life more difficult still, the 13-a-side rugby fraternity decided that Salford City Reds and Bradford Bulls should play each other at pretty much the same moment, in pretty much the same neck of the woods. Suddenly, 20,000 at the Reebok seems a little ambitious. But for their bad luck, Sale would have no luck at all.

"We don't think we'll pull in the crowd we'd hoped for originally," admitted Mick Hogan, the Sale chief executive, yesterday. "But we'll more than double our average gate and from the corporate point of view, business has been very good. We couldn't have foreseen the FA Cup draw, but while things are more difficult for us than they might have been, the thrust of what we're doing hasn't changed. We're not doing this for financial reasons: we won't make much more out of this than we make from a normal game at Edgeley Park. The rationale behind this is different. We're looking to lift rugby union out of its usual environment and create a bigger day in the hope of introducing the sport to new people. It's something we feel we have to do."

Sale have been in the top flight of English rugby for the whole of the professional era and were champions as recently as five years ago. But in an area where union is the third football code of three – in this sense, if not in the meteorological one, the North-west bears a distinct resemblance to great swathes of Australia – "game of the people" status has proved elusive. And now, what you might call a sporting double dip is in play: an economic downturn, allied to a competitive one. Three northern teams have been at the bottom of the Premiership all season, and while Sale pretty much secured their future by beating Gloucester last Friday night, one of Leeds and Newcastle will be relegated.

"We're doing everything we can to generate interest in the sport here," Hogan said. "We have a community programme second to none: our players have made 700 visits to schools, clubs and organisations this season, generally on their days off, and not one of them has presented me with a claim for petrol expenses. They've been absolutely brilliant. But if the Rugby Football Union and the game at large simply leaves those of us in the North to get on with it on our own, they could end up with a regional sport rather than a national one. And if that happens, the broadcasters will react very badly.

"The RFU has done a tremendous job building Twickenham into what it is today. They have created a market for rugby in the South-east that is beginning to stand alongside those in the union heartlands of the West Country and the East Midlands. What the governing body needs to do now is bring some of its really big events to the towns and cities up here, and by big events I mean Six Nations matches. It's all very well having Churchill Cup and Under-20s games, but it's not enough. A Six Nations game at Old Trafford? That would be really bold. It might annoy some of the old guard, but it would do a hell of a lot for the wider profile of the sport."

By comparison, a league match between 10th and fifth is small beer. It is, however, a start: from little acorns, and all that. Should the mighty oaks fail to grow, English club rugby will be the loser. If we look a little further north than Sale, we see the inevitable consequence of a sporting tournament gone wrong. It is called the Scottish Premier League.

News
peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
News
news
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
life
New Articles
i100... with this review
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Voices
Holly's review of Peterborough's Pizza Express quickly went viral on social media
Sport
footballTim Sherwood: This might be th match to wake up Manchester City
Arts and Entertainment
musicHow female vocalists are now writing their own hits
New Articles
i100
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
News
Blahnik says: 'I think I understand the English more than they do themselves'
people
Arts and Entertainment
Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Crawley in Downton Abbey
TVInside Downton Abbey series 5
Life and Style
The term 'normcore' was given the oxygen of publicity by New York magazine during the autumn/winter shows in Paris in February
fashionWhen is a trend a non-trend? When it's Normcore, since you ask
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam