This post was originally published on rugbyreloaded.com on 20 August 2010.
What would have happened to rugby if Sale had joined the Northern Union after the 1895 split?
Following the recent 'What If...' piece on the possibility of Leicester joining the NU in 1910, Steve Whittaker emailed me about what impact Sale's defection to the NU would have had on the development of union in Cheshire and Lancashire.
The answer, perhaps surprisingly from today's perspective, is probably none whatsoever.
Indeed, Sale were an almost entirely marginal union club until the 1920s.
The club claims to have had a continuous existence since 1861. But this is not strictly accurate. As Monty Barak's official club history (1962) points out, the earliest record of the club is a minute book for 1864-65. On 14 October 1865, a meeting was held
for the purpose of considering the formation of the club for the present year. Although a nucleus of the club had existed for some time previously and the game played repeatedly on the ground of the Sale Cricket Club, there had hitherto been no organised football club further than the election of a secretary in Mr A Ollivant, who had not been able to raise sufficient funds to meeting existing expenses and consequently the present club had a legacy left it in the shape of a debt of £1 10s which the present club has had to liquidate.
This version of the club did not last long and Sale FC had to be 're-formed' again in 1882 'after giving up the ghost' in the 1870s, according to the 'Athletic News'.
Sale didn't attend the founding meeting of the Lancashire Rugby Union (originally called the Lancashire County Football Club) in 1881, unlike Oldham, Rochdale Hornets and Swinton.
When the Lancashire Rugby Union was forced to set up a three division league in 1893 of the top 29 sides in the county, Sale weren't even considered for membership, such was the low playing standard of the club.
At the Lancashire Rugby Union's special general meeting held in July 1895 (six weeks before the split), called to discuss the crisis in rugby, the club didn't bother to attend despite being members.
If Sale had joined the NU, it is doubtful that it would have had impact at all. The mantle of rugby union in the Manchester/Cheshire suburbs would have been picked up by another club. Perhaps like Otley, Sale would have eventually dropped out of the NU and another union club started under the same name.
The big cities like Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds always had a significant layer of the private/grammar school-educated middle classes that underpinned the survival of union clubs regardless of what league or soccer did.
One of the ironies of Sale's rise to prominence is that they now play at Edgeley Park, originally the home ground of Northern Union founder-members Stockport NUFC. Stockport went bankrupt in 1903, ceding the ground to Stockport County soccer club.
It was the soccer juggernaut of the early 1900s that fatally wounded the Stockport Northern Union club, not union, which in the 1900s was in a far worse state in the North West than the NU ever was.
Unlike Leicester, who have been a major union club since the 1890s, Sale's prominence in rugby union is a product of the last thirty years - something which may account for the fact that its club website contains not one word about its history.