The Chiefs slipped to their first defeat in nine games at the AJ Bell as a Danny Cipriani inspired Sharks brought an abrupt halt to Baxter’s in-form side.
England fly-half Cipriani claimed one of two tries for the home side, the other came from winger Mark Cueto, as well as adding two penalties and a conversion to fire Steve Diamond’s side back into the top four.
The Chiefs countered with Thomas Waldrom’s eighth league try of the season, plus two penalties from fly-half Gareth Steenson, but it was only enough to ensure a losing bonus point for the Devonians.
Post-match, Baxter offered few excuses for his side’s disappointing display, stating: “I think there were obviously crucial areas of the game where Sale were on top. Being honest, you can’t take anything away from them, they performed much better in the key areas than we did and they have got what they deserved, which was winning the game.
“They got some early dominance up front and they exploited that. Like in any game, if you get on top in those areas - especially in those conditions - you deserve to win the game.
“For us, if you are going to take positives out of the game - because there weren’t many - one was we hung in there and we got the losing bonus point which, hopefully, could prove vital at some stage. That said, this is a tough place to come and a lot of teams come here and lose, so there’s no great shame in that. What does rankle me, however, is the way we lost.”
Baxter added: “I don’t want to take anything away from Sale because they were very good in the key areas of the game. However, it’s those areas where we have been very good this season. For some reason things seemed to be lacking a little bit today and that’s for me to deal with and very much my job to make sure the guys turn up flying and ready to go.
“Yes, we are going to do a bit of soul searching, but the truth is - and it’s that little eternal battle that you go through in sport when you are a winning run and you feel good about yourself - sooner or later you draw breath. We have managed to get this far in the season without drawing breath, but tonight we drew a collectively bit of breath and that’s not good enough when you play against a Sale team who are playing with as much spirit and togetherness as these guys are.”
With an unusually high penalty count and two yellow cards to contend with, Baxter readily admits that such indiscretions at the top level will undoubtedly be punished by rival clubs.
Forwards Damian Welch and Ben White were both sin-binned in the opening quarter and although the Sharks failed to cash in significantly during their time off the field, Baxter says it’s something he will be keen to address with his players ahead of next week’s Westcountry derby with high-flying Bath.
“I’ll have to go away and think about what the issues are,” explained Baxter. “Tonight we’ve gone from statistically being the most disciplined side in the Premiership to looking, I’m not going to say a rabble, but an ill-disciplined team. Right from the start we gave up a silly couple of penalties that put us under pressure by our try-line and although we weathered that pretty well, albeit with two yellow cards, all of a sudden whatever game plan you had goes out the window and you’re hanging on for ten minutes.
“To be fair, we did well in that time, but in all honesty we struggled to get a grip on the game at any time. Physically and mentally we weren’t quite at the races tonight and, as I said, I don’t want to take anything away from Sale, but that’s not the way we have been performing this season. We have been quite dominant in a lot of set-piece exchanges and that wasn’t even there tonight, so we have to go away and look at that.”
Unlike recent victories over Northampton Saints, Wasps and Saracens, the Chiefs were unable to assert their dominance up front and it was Sale who bossed the forwards exchanges.
“It was like a mirror image of the success we had against Northampton, Wasps and Saracens,” said Baxter. “The difference this time round was we got put under pressure from issues around our set piece and that pressure grew and grew and we found it very hard to deal with.
“We got back into the game and fair play to the lads there were periods in the second half where we could say we might come through this, but at the same time there were some pivotal moments that cost us. The second try for them came from us missing touch and suddenly it became a try out of nothing.
“That is what can happen in these conditions and why for 80 minutes you have to be on the ball. When we played Northampton and we played Saracens, we were on the ball, today you could see we weren’t.”
With England head coach Stuart Lancaster watching from the sidelines, it was an opportunity for the Chiefs players to stake their claim with the national coach.
“That’s typical of us,” assessed Baxter. “We probably save our best performances for when we are not on TV and not so many people are watching or talking about England internationals. As soon as those people starting talking about them and we’re live on TV, we put in one of our poorest performances of the season. That said, we have dealt with them in the past and we will deal with them again in the future.
“I’m not going to to over react about things. As I said, it’s more of a collective drawing of breath from us. Last time we lost in the league was at Newcastle and we responded very well, so that is exactly what we have to do again.”
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