Sale must banish the Premiership’s curse of third to lift title

Rob du Preez, Manu Tuilagi and Luke Cowan-Dickie smiling - Sale must banish the Premiership's curse of third to lift title
Will Sale players Rob du Preez, Manu Tuilagi and Luke Cowan-Dickie be smiling come the final whistle of their semi-final against Bath on Saturday - Getty Images/Steve Bardens

This is probably not what Sale Sharks want to hear this week, having grafted all season to make the play-offs before producing an upset on the final day of the regular season by winning at Saracens. And yet this statistical oddity needs to be acknowledged: no team has ever won the Premiership after finishing in third place.

This will be the 22nd edition of the Premiership’s end-of-season play-offs and in that time eight teams have won the title after finishing first, 11 after finishing second and two after finishing fourth. The sides who have come third have nothing to show for their efforts.

Forget winning the title from third place, what about even reaching the final? Just twice in the previous 21 seasons has a third-placed side won their semi-final to progress to the big dance at Twickenham. Oddly that happened in back-to-back years, with London Irish in 2009 followed by Saracens in 2010. Which means no third-placed side has even reached the Premiership final in the past 13 seasons.

Worth noting is that Irish and Saracens in those respective years came within a whisker of winning the Premiership, beaten by Leicester Tigers in separate years with Irish defeated by just a point before Saracens’ hearts were broken by a late Dan Hipkiss try.

The other 19 teams who finished the season in third have been one and done in the play-offs. Why is this happening?

There is the obvious factor of having to play away from home but even so, two fourth-placed sides – facing the harder task of having to play away against the team who finished top of the table – have managed to win the league with another two fourth-placed teams reaching the final. Finishing third is supposed to give you the easier semi-final and yet that hardly seems the case.

Harlequins win at Twickenham
Harlequins, 2021, were the second and most recent fourth-place side to win the title - Getty Images/David Rogers

Add up all the margins of defeat in those semi-finals and the third-placed teams have lost by an average of 16 points. More than two scores feels like a lot, considering two of the league’s elite sides are meant to be involved.

There have occasionally been tight semi-finals between second and third – Saracens 12-10 Gloucester back in 2011, Northampton 21-20 Leicester in 2014 and Exeter 18-16 Saracens in 2017 – but those seem to be rare. In fact, Leicester’s 21-13 loss at Sale in last year’s semi-final was the first time the margin of defeat had been in single figures for many years.

Does the gap between where second and third finish the regular season in the table have anything to do with the semi-final results? Not really. Admittedly, Irish and Saracens in 2009 and 2010 respectively finished narrowly behind the teams above them. But Irish also finished only two points behind Leicester in 2006 and lost by 32 at Welford Road, and Bristol were only two points behind Wasps in 2020 yet lost their fixture by a margin of 23. The average gap between second- and third-placed teams in the play-off era has been 5.5 points. Sale this season have improved on that, finishing four points behind Bath.

It all seems slightly baffling and, in a roundabout way, that might actually be good news for Sale. Because this “cursed” third place, if you want to view it that way, has to produce a Premiership winner at some point – or perhaps a finalist for the first time in 14 years.

Sale have already made a bit of history this season by winning in the league at Saracens for the first time since 2005, back before Saracens were at the StoneX and still playing at Vicarage Road. Now would be a great time to break a couple more records, starting at Bath on Saturday.

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