2015-16 Season Preview Part Two; Sale's Core Of Young English Talent The Focus In A Transitional Year
In the first part of the SharkTankRugby 2015-16 Season Preview released on Tuesday, I covered the events of last season for Sale Sharks. To bring everyone up to date in the quickest fashion; Sale's 2014-15 season ended disappointingly but their final position in the Premiership table, 7th, was an appropriate spot. With that in mind, it is now time to look ahead to the upcoming 2015-16 season and preview what a new year of domestic and European competition has in store for Sale Sharks.
Sale finishing last season's Premiership competition in 7th place, only missing out on a shot at a Champions Cup play-off spot due to Gloucester (who finished 9th) lifting the Challenge Cup trophy, as I said before, was an appropriate finish to the season for the Sharks. A small, but determined squad, with its unique blend of experience and youthful invigoration was let down by its lack of rotational talent and genuine star quality outside of the talismanic Danny Cipriani and Josh Beaumont.
Had everything remained in place for Sale and English rugby since the end of the season, everything would be in pretty good shape for the Sharks and their chances of mounting another assault at the Premiership top-six and a Champions Cup spot; a reasonable target for a small rugby club with its ambitions checked by its shallow pockets.
But the cards in the Rugby Union deck have undergone their annual shuffling and Sale Sharks look to be major losers because of it.
Before the start of last season (2014-15) I saw a Sale squad assembled to retain their hard-fought for spot in the Champions Cup and play their usual brand of intelligent, hard-nosed rugby that, on paper, made them at best, play-off contenders, at worst, solidly mid-table (7th/8th/9th). Considering they eventually finished 7th, it was a fair assessment of the squad.
This season, barring a surprising Challenge Cup win, Sale are not going to come anywhere close to the Champions Cup or the top-six place they've become accustomed to fighting for since that disastrous first season at the AJ Bell (which to be fair they still only finished 9th having been bottom of the table for most of the season).
Instead Sale fans should prepare themselves to see their team hovering around the lower mid-table of the Premiership, as I have no reason to believe that this team, as currently assembled, is better than say an 9th place finish in 2015-16.
Now that is not to say Sale are candidates for relegation, (touch wood) they're far from it. They have a good core of first team players with spades of experiences and mastery of the uglier elements of the game of Union that are required to grind out victories, sprinkled with some exciting game-changing talents including Danny Cipriani, Will Addison and Josh Beaumont, all of whom have shown in the past they are capable of turning a game on its head at a moment's notice and pick up vital points for the Sharks.
In addition, the drop in intensity from competing in the Champions Cup to the Challenge Cup should allow Sale's relatively small and unbalanced squad to benefit from greater periods of rest, as Sale's first-choice XV will not have to compete in their entirety for an additional six rounds of games this coming season. The drop off in ability should allow some of Sale's peripheral players to get more opportunities in the first team and allow some of the older players to rest knocks and niggling injuries in a way they couldn't last season.
So why such a dire prediction of Sale's fortunes in 2015-16? As with everything in this world, it comes down to money, or lack thereof.
Sale's squad last season was worthy of its 7th place as I've now repeated countless time. They won some games they shouldn't have and lost some games they shouldn't have, sure. However in their squad there was quality and experience and a reasonable amount of depth. A couple of additions at key positions to what they already possessed and Sale would finally once again have a squad capable of competing for a play-off place.
However an abysmal summer of transfer activity for the Sharks has left their already threadbare squad low on Premiership talent and top-six calibre players. Whilst I am aware Sale operate on a shoe-string budget and therefore have trouble retaining players from sugar daddy-bankrolled Championship clubs and must jettison costly internationals who have proven to be inefficient at Premiership level, the gap in talent leaving the club from last season and arriving ahead of this season makes for tough reading, especially when you remember how good Sale were for periods last season and how close they were to becoming a serious force in the Premiership and Europe once again:
Neil Briggs (Leicester Tigers) - Two Year Deal
Bryn Evans (Biarritz) - Two Year Deal
Peter Stringer (Bath) - One Year Deal
Alberto Di Marchi - Contract Terminated
Mark Cueto - Retiring
Will Cliff - Bristol Rugby
Andy Forsyth - Yorkshire Carnegie
Nathan Fowles - Edinburgh Rugby
Nathan Hines - Retiring
Marc Jones - Bristol Rugby
Luke McLean - Contract Terminated
Michael Paterson - Northampton Saints
Now I'm not saying I don't believe Sale's newest signings were good deals or that Sale are going to rue losing every single one of their departing players during the forthcoming season. I found all three incoming players appropriate for the current makeup of Sale's squad and of those players leaving Manchester for greener pastures, only Jones, Hines, Paterson and McLean are losses that I think Sale would have hoped to avoid (I'm lumping McLean in with the others because I feel his natural ability and versatility would've eventually made him a quality Premiership player given more time to settle in England and at Sale with another season).
However there is no denying that from last season's squad to this season's, Sale have significantly downgraded. Not only have they lost a number of players who, when available, were among the first choices in the match day 23 who have been replaced by inferior players, Sale have lost even more depth outside their starting lineup when it was already a extremely alarming concern last season, and the main reason for their slide down the table at season's end.
For example I think Tommy Taylor and James Mitchell will eventually be better players than Marc Jones and Will Cliff respectively, but having players of the claire of Jones and Cliff able to cover the first team would have made me feel a lot more confident about Sale's chances across both the Premiership and the Challenge Cup next season.
In addition, Sale have still yet to address the gaping holes in their squad that they've had issues with for more than an entire season now. Despite the various rumours floating around, Sale are still yet to sign another Tighthead Prop to rotate with Vadim Cobilas, they only have three Locks in a position that requires two to be playing during every single minute of the season and, as I wrote about last week, a failure to replace Mark Cueto and/or Luke McLean means Sale's options in their back-three border on the embarrassing for a team that has maintained it is still targeting a top-six Premiership finish. Until those three positions are filled, Sale cannot be considered remotely close to where they were this time last year especially when a handful of injuries at one or two positions could completely decimate the squad.
To compound Sale's issue, not only are Sale a significantly worse team from last season but the teams around them in the mid-table bubble have all invested massively and now all possesses larger and more talented squads from a season ago. Wasps, Exeter, London Irish, Gloucester, Harlequins, and even Newcastle have upgraded substantially in ways Sale haven't come close to matching and when you factor in Worcester Warriors replacement of London Welsh in next year's Premiership, it is not hard to envision Sale having dropped three or four places down the table in comparison to last season by the end of May 2016.
Reassuringly, with it being a World Cup year, there are still many weeks for Sale to find the players to fill the sizeable gaps their squad currently has, and it would not surprise me in the least to see Sale being the busiest team in terms of player movement in the last few weeks leading up the opening round of the new Premiership season in October.
However, unless Sale make a number of substantial international additions to their squad to rival the moves of Exeter or Wasps, which considering Sale's financial constraints seems extremely unlikely, all evidence points to the 2015-16 season being a tough one for Sale.
Yet, there is reason for optimism in Salford. As difficult as it might be on the pitch this year for Sale with their squad depth weakened further and their rivals going from strength to strength, as has been alluded to by this article's title, 2015-16 could very well be a transitional year for Sale. Why?
Although the game of Union has altered dramatically since the Sharks' professional introduction in 2001 and Sale have not always been the quickest to adapt, one element of their business plan as a rugby club isolated in a footballing heartland continues to thrive today - their pipeline of young, English, home-grown talent.
As talented and vital to the club as are the Dan Braids, Eifon Lewis-Robertses and Sam Tuitupous, many core members of the Sale first team are now well into their 30s, and the Nathan Hineses and Brad Thorns of the world are anomalies - hardly any rugby players make it past 35 anymore.
There is a growing sense, emphasised by Dan Braid's impending move into retirement and coaching that will coincide with the end of this coming season, that the 'old guard' of Sale Sharks is beginning to move on, and the core of young English talent that has been nurtured by Sale for years is now beginning to make a legitimate impact on the Premiership and is ready to assume the mantle of the leaders of this Sale team.
Whilst my expectations for Sale this season are relatively pessimistic (that way when Sale eventually prove me wrong I am delighted rather than bashful), my expectations for Sale's future are exceedingly optimistic.
Sale are somewhat unique in the Premiership. Aided by their inability to build a first team around big-name, expensive international signings, they have developed nearly a full team's worth of English talent ready to replace their ageing stars that they will be able to build around over the next decade, following a similar model to Bath and Northampton albeit a few years behind.
We saw it last season with the emergence of Josh Beaumont and Mike Haley and the return from injury of Tommy Taylor and Will Addison - Sale's homegrown players getting substantial playing time in the Sale first team and not only surviving, but often impacting (and occasionally dominating) Premiership and European fixtures. These are the same players that have represented England at Junior level and are now pushing for Senior and Saxons recognition.
There were growing pains last season, of course, and this season will be no different, but in a Rugby world that is getting increasingly driven by money, Sale are building something special through their academy - a spine of a Premiership rugby club with homegrown English talent in a variety of positions.
And it showed through Sale's transfer dealings so far. Losing Jones, Cliff and McLean and replacing them on paper with only Neil Briggs and Peter Stringer is a definite downgrade. However whilst it still weakens the squad heading into next season to be sure, Sale are in a position that allows them to not have to splash out on big-money replacements for the aforementioned players because they have the likes of Taylor, Mitchell and (Mike) Haley, all with far brighter futures than those who are leaving, able to step straight into the first team with the potential to cement those positions as their own for the next decade, but whilst also being at a level right now to be significant contributors in the Premiership this season.
Of course not every one of Sale's prospects will blossom into the star their potential has suggested of them so far, but looking at the impact that has already been made by ex-Jets and academy players on the Sale team over the last few years, it is hard not to envision, only a year or so down the line, a first-choice Sale team that has six or seven potential England players holding down spots in the starting XV.
Those would be Ross Harrison, Tommy Taylor, Josh Beaumont, Mark Jennings, Will Addison and Mike Haley, seven players covering a number of key positions that Sale could rebuild their squad around once Braid and Lewis-Roberts et al. have all moved on.
And that is not even mentioning the next wave of English talent Sale are starting to see break through - Cameron Neild, Ciaran Parker, George Nott, James Mitchell, Tom Morton, Sam James and Sam Bedlow, should all begin to see greater opportunities in the first team and in a few years could join the above players as being the (many) cornerstones of Sale's future.
2015-16, in theory, will not be an easy one for Sale. A loss of valuable first team members from last season, relatively small-impact transfer dealings, the continued ageing of key leaders in the squad and the substantial moves made by Sale's closest rivals should push Sale far away from the top-six and down into the Premiership's lower mid-table. This is just a pragmatic estimation. I would love nothing more than to see Sale prove me wrong and once again push for not only a top-six place, but a play-off spot as well, but pre-season is a time for realism - we can reevaluate where Sale stand at Christmas - as of right now Sale are probably only the 9th best team in the Premiership.
But what is definitely worth keeping an eye on, alongside Sale's campaign in the Challenge Cup which I believe Sale will give a real go at attempting to win for that lucrative 2016-17 Champions Cup spot, is how does Sale's exciting pipeline of English talent perform in the 2015-16 season? Beaumont, Addison, Haley and co. are all players with the potential to be international superstars for both club and country and will soon be the players Sale look to build their club around for the next decade. The widening gaps from last year's squad, although not ideal, should at least afford Sale's gluttony of young English talent ample opportunities to impress in and around the Sharks' first team once again and the development of the Taylors, Harrisons et al. in 2015-16 could be crucial to how quickly Sale can rebuild in this gilded age of rugby and once again challenge for the play-offs and European honours in the coming years.
A top-six finish in 2015-16 would be a pleasant surprise for a Sale team that enters the new season significantly weakened from the last, but a far more impressive achievement could be using this coming season to identify, establish and double down on the core of young English talent who have all the combined tools to take Sale back to prominence in the very near future.
What is your prediction for Sale Sharks in 2015-16? 9th too low or too high? Remember to follow @SharkTankRugby on Twitter for more opinion, news and analysis, and tell your friends.