Marshalling a Covid crisis wasn’t the weekend drama Sale boss Steve Diamond envisaged unfolding. The breezy early October script was for Sharks to go out on Sunday, do the business against Worcester and qualify for a first Premiership semi-final since 2006, the only year they have lifted English rugby’s most prestigious trophy.   

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Eight years Diamond has been at the helm in Manchester, taking over in October 2012 from Bryan Redpath and pouring his heart and soul into trying to make his local club beat the odds. 

Two 10ths, an 8th, two 7ths and a pair of 6th place finishes had been his lot until now, a season where Sale would enter the final round of fixtures lying in fourth spot after 13 wins in 21 outings and with their play-off destiny in their own hands. 

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That tantalising prospect meant Diamond was in his element when he checked in with a media Zoom call at noon on Thursday, never in the slightest imagining the Sale medical emergency that would soon unfold. The mood was sweetness and light for 20-plus minutes.

There was a reflection on the six-month Manu Tuilagi injury, his call for Luke James to be selected by England, how Sale were “battening down the hatches” in adjusting life without fans at games, and even a few jibes about how he might offer some journalists a wheelbarrow gig on the building sites given how there might not be any professional rugby to report on in twelve months due to the financial ravages of Covid on the sport. 

This tongue-in-cheek alternative employment jab from Diamond was met with some giggles but the virus was soon no laughing matter regarding Sale. After a Friday of claim, counter-claim and much speculation about Sale’s involvement in Super Sunday, a resolution emerged just before 3pm on Saturday and Sharks were handed a reprieve. Instead of the cancellation that would eliminate them from the play-off picture, their fixture against Worcester would now be delayed until Wednesday.

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Not ideal in the context of going on and preparing for a semi-final next weekend, but an unexpected lifeline given the extent of how Covid had inculcated itself in the Sale squad. It, of course, arrived with red tape attached. 

Additional testing, a refusal to register new players, a track and trace audit. But better that than nothing in the striking circumstances where Diamond went from chirpily talking on Thursday about Covid being something very much outside the Sale bubble to now being a pest suddenly threatening to undo months and years of hard work at the club.  

Unlike in France, where three of the Top 14’s opening 21 matches fell victim to the virus and Racing’s isolation is now affecting their Champions Cup final preparations, or in South Africa, where participation in the PRO14 has been shelved entirely until 2021 due to travel restrictions, the Premiership had been coping mighty fine with keeping the virus at bay.

In the 15 rounds of Premiership-monitored testing between early July and September 22, there were only 66 positives among players and staff (43 players) from a whopping total of 14,560 tests, a tiny 0.45 per cent. Such was the wolf-is-long-gone-from-the-door atmosphere that took hold that Exeter boss Rob Baxter even suggested there were genuine medical reasons to discontinue the routine weekly testing.

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By the close of business last Wednesday night, the Premiership had every reason to feel chuffed. Eight of the nine rounds of back matches – 48 games – had just been completed, leaving just nine more fixtures – round 22 and the playoffs – remaining to be played to bring to a conclusion a 2019/20 season that few last March would have believed would be successfully restarted and concluded.  

Diamond was among those most pleased, embracing a question on Thursday from RugbyPass on how much of an achievement it would be to get the season finished after the bleakness of the lockdown. “All credit has to go, certainly in our league, to Premier Rugby,” he enthused at the time. “All the games have been completed apart from this last round. It has been very difficult I must admit, home and away. 

“Franklin’s Gardens (where Sale had played last Tuesday night) is too nice a place and too good a facility not to have any people in it. It’s sad. It’s like walking into a graveyard, so that has been an experience.  It has helped us. We have won six away games, we haven’t done that for about 20 years I don’t think. But they have done a great job, the league, of getting it on. All the protocols we are going through and everything, it’s been a peculiar time. 

“It will be remembered for all of us who have been through this. It will be one of those years where for the next 20, 30 years we will be talking about – do you remember the Covid? – for all the wrong reasons. Fortunately, I have not had anybody close to me who has been poorly with it but you can see what’s happening around the country and the rate of infections going up. We have to keep doing this until it’s right to stop it [taking precautions].”

Famous last words and all that given what played out in the subsequent 48 hours. Northampton’s game at Gloucester was cancelled, the Kingsholm club awarded a 20-0 bonus-point win, while Sale’s Saturday statement didn’t confirm the alleged extent of how badly they were affected, their update instead curiously accentuating how all is apparently well despite Premiership Rugby later confirming that 21 people of out 972 (18 players, 3 staff) tested positive across three different clubs in Thursday’s latest round of league testing.

“Sale would like to reassure its supporters that all of the club’s players and staff are currently well,” read the club statement, Sharks adding that were in a position to fulfil the game against Worcester as scheduled on Sunday but were complying with Public Health England advice to postpone for four days.   

It’s a compromise that should appease Diamond in the sense that Sale can now only lose their play-off spot on the pitch and not in sickbay as was feared. “I don’t mind losing,” he said Thursday before the narrative changed. “There is a bit of a misconception. If we are beaten by a better team who pull out the plays and beat us then I accept it all of the time but a couple of games we have lost where we have given 13, 15, 18, 20 penalties away, it’s just not acceptable. 

“That is the bit that frustrates you and there’s not much you can do about it. All you can do is do those basics again every week. If anybody looked at our training sessions you would not believe it. It’s like an U10s training session of what we concentrate on and by doing that it has got us in touching distance of the top four, so I don’t see why we would not continue doing that?”

But only when it is safe to do so. If this past 48 hours has taught Premiership clubs anything it’s that there are no guarantees in this game at the moment, not with a sport-wrecking pandemic lurking and ready to do its damnedest to ruin the spectacle. 

 

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