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.