Confidence is a remarkable thing in sport and nothing epitomises this more than the form of Newcastle, whose decline has been stark. Following Worcester Warriors’ dramatic victory over Bath at Sixways, the Tynesiders are now four points adrift at the bottom of the Premiership and are set for a nervous end to the season.
Having enjoyed an incredible 2017/18, which saw them qualify for the Premiership play-offs for the first time ever, Dean Richards’ men have faltered over the current campaign.
It started poorly, being defeated by Saracens, Leicester Tigers, Exeter Chiefs and Wasps in September, although you could excuse it slightly given that all those teams finished in the top-five last season. Even though some of those were by a narrow margin, losing becomes a habit and it has become symptomatic of their problems.
Last season, the Falcons managed to edge out these tight encounters but there was always a danger that this could change. Simply through a lack of financial clout and squad depth, Newcastle have never really had the ability to hand out severe beatings. Instead, their victories came through having a solid base, both in defence and at the set-piece, and a bit of quality out wide in Vereniki Goneva and Sinoti Sinoti.
Injuries to those wings have hampered them while the front-row have also had their issues and, as a result, their confidence has been drained. It all culminated in a shambolic performance at home to Harlequins where the game was lost by the interval having been outplayed and, more surprisingly, outworked in all facets.
REACTION: Dean Richards offered a blunt assessment of Saturday’s 38-17 home defeat to Harlequins, with a first-half points deluge giving his Newcastle Falcons side far too much to do https://t.co/fA5Dvsw3iO pic.twitter.com/qHSG3d9DSP
— Newcastle Falcons (@FalconsRugby) January 5, 2019
The next month, with the European break, gives them chance to reassess but, with away games to come against Bath and Exeter Chiefs, it looks bleak for Richards and his cohorts.
It is all in stark contrast to the Salford-based Sale, who are enjoying a resurgence, both on and off the field. New owners took over the club in 2016 and they have been slowly building since then, bringing in the world-class talent of James O’Connor and Faf de Klerk to go alongside their burgeoning young players.
With Sam James, the Currys and Josh Beaumont a couple of years older, they are starting to look a very good side but, perhaps most importantly, they have been able to keep their academy graduates through the increased investment.
Gone are the days when any talented individual would be snapped up immediately by the Premiership big guns and it is paying dividends on the field.
James, Tom Curry and Beaumont were all excellent as they defeated defending Premiership champions Saracens on Friday, leaving them well in the top-four fight.
A few absentees, particularly at half-back with De Klerk and AJ MacGinty – who is due to return soon – would hamper their chances but, as director of rugby Steve Diamond has been keen to point out following the recent criticism of him, the Sharks have one of the best injury records in the division.
If they can remain healthy until May, there is no reason why Sale can’t repeat Newcastle’s heroics from last season and finish in a play-off place but, unlike the Falcons, they appear to have the infrastructure and investment to maintain a challenge over the coming years.