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'They're a massive benchmark, always were for Saracens and now hopefully Sale'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by PA)

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Alex Sanderson can’t wait to see his promising Sale team play Exeter twice on consecutive weekends. The Sharks head to the Chiefs this Saturday for a final regulation season round fixture amid the prospect the same two sides will clash again in next weekend’s Gallagher Premiership semi-finals. 


There was still an opportunity on Saturday morning that a win for Exeter and a defeat for the table-topping Bristol would see the defending champions finish on top and leave Sale facing an away semi-final at the Bears. 

However, with Bristol’s home game versus London Irish cancelled at the eleventh hour, it is expected that the Bears will receive four points for the cancellation which would mean that Exeter would be unable to overtake Pat Lam’s team at the top and clinch a home semi-final versus the fourth place Harlequins. 

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Instead, it means that the main question to be answered when Exeter host Sale is whether the Chiefs can hold onto second, a position they could lose if the Sharks come away with a bonus-point victory as five points separate the teams going into the match. 

Sale falling short of that target would result in them having to return to Sandy Park next weekend for the semi-finals. Wherever that game is staged, though, Sanderson can’t wait to see his team going up against the same opposition two weekends in a row, an opposition that became Saracens’ biggest domestic rivals when the Sale boss worked there as an assistant to Mark McCall. 

Asked by RugbyPass for his thoughts on Exeter and the old rivalry from his days with Saracens, Sanderson said: “We know what we have got to do this weekend, best case get the five points and there is a semi-final looming and all of that. Strip all that away because it really is all irrelevant and it brings it back to the challenge that you have and Exeter have probably been the most consistent team over the course of the last seven, eight years. They are a massive benchmark, they always were the benchmark for Saracens and now hopefully for Sale moving forward.


“You want to play against the best and you use them to gauge yourself. You use them as a present to push yourself, that is what the best competition is. So it’s not the same rivalry because I guess Exeter have never been that afraid of playing us. I hope moving forward they will be (afraid).”

Sanderson never finished a Premiership season facing the opposition Saracens would play in the semi-finals the previous week in round 22 of the league, but he has likened the Sale-Exeter double match-up as similar to the traditional back-to-back December weekends in the Heineken Champions Cup. “No (it didn’t happen with Saracens), but I love it, I absolutely love it. I have been in Champions Cup situations where you are playing back-to-back and it adds an extra element to your coaching, to your mentality. Geez, like if we get it right we are a physical team and I don’t know any team that wants to come and play us twice. But then I don’t know the minds of others, I’m not a mind reader.”

Sale and Exeter have each made four changes to the starting XVs that respectively beat Harlequins and Northampton in round 21. For the Sharks, midfielder Manu Tuilagi and openside Tom Curry return at the expense of Rob du Preez and Ben Curry, with Arron Reed replacing Marland Yarde on the wing and Cobus Wiese on for Josh Beaumont at lock.





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