Any game against Saracens is big but it feels like there’s a bit more on this one. It’s the Christmas game, it’s a repeat of the final last season, it’s a chance for our lads to get the monkey off their backs, but most importantly, we’ve got a sell-out crowd and we want you all to come back. It’s huge and while outcomes of games like this shouldn’t define Christmas, I know that my bucks fizz and that first roast potato will taste so much sweeter on Christmas Day if we can get the performance and the win that we want tonight.
Before I go on, can I extend a northern welcome and say Happy Christmas to Mark McCall, his Saracens players and coaches, and all the Saracens fans who have made the trip up at what I know is a really busy time for everyone. The last time we hosted Saracens at our place was a fantastic occasion and a great game and I have no doubt you’re in for a similar treat tonight.
Obviously only time will tell, but I feel like we’re in a really good place after two good Champions Cup performances and one really great win. We’ve managed to rest everyone who is involved tonight and we’re feeling fresh and ready to go back into the Premiership.
I’ve already mentioned the last time we played Saracens here at the Salford Stadium, but that wasn’t the last time we faced them. That was in the Premiership final in May and it was a day none of us associated with Sale Sharks will forget. I was asked this week if we – or I – had any regrets and truthfully, I do look back on that day with a sense of what might have been. I feel like we had them at the 60 minute mark and while loads of teams probably think that, we had big opportunities on their try line. I don’t feel like we showed the best of ourselves but we’re a young, developing team. Tonight’s game will be a really good gauge for us to show how far we’ve come with a similar group of players.
Christmas is a strange time for professional sportsmen and women. The lads will get four days off over Christmas because it’s been a hard slog since the start of the season and this is the first chance we can give them a rest to freshen them up before we get back into Saints on the 30th.
We go into this game top of the Gallagher Premiership and obviously that’s exactly where we want to be. So outcome-wise – and I know that’s how we’re judged from the outside – we’re going well. But in terms of our performance I feel like there’s loads more to come from us all. That’s actually really exciting isn’t it? I think we’ve only hit our top form in two games – Bristol and Stade – and both of those games came after a big loss. We need to be better in all areas of the game without need for a reaction to a defeat.
As I said, we come into this game after two really good performances in the Champions Cup. We only came away with one win but I was chuffed with what the boys did against Leinster, in particular. We saw 19-year-olds going up against British and Irish Lions and more than holding their own and we had a team who was extremely competitive against one of the world’s best teams. The lads came out with so much energy and momentum to take into tonight and for those younger players especially, the knowledge that they can go toe-to-toe with experienced internationals and handle that level of intensity will be massive for them.
One of the big learnings from the game in Dublin was that making mistakes around the basic fundamentals of the game – like not winning a line-out five metres out – can have dire consequences against top quality opposition. The momentum swings that those mistakes can lead to are huge and I have no doubt that Saracens will punish us in the same way if our basics aren’t good enough.
A game’s big moments turn on small hinges and we need to make sure we turn those big moments in our favour. If we can do that, we’re in for another special night and those pigs in blankets will taste all the sweeter for all of us come Monday.
Lastly, I want to say a huge thank you for your support in the last 12 months. We’ve had plenty of highs and lows and everything in between. You’ve stuck with us and I hope that we’ve given you a team to be proud of. 2023 was pretty memorable but I’m confident that 2024 will be even better.
So, from everyone at Sale Sharks, look after yourselves over this festive period, and have a very merry Christmas and a happy new year.