A few weeks ago, I attempted to plot Sale's "depth chart" looking at where each squad member is relative to their position in the team, an endeavour that resulted in the above table and the eponymous page on this very blog.
Now with the season yet to get underway and not having a direct insight into the Sale coaching staff's gameplan or models of player evaluation, it goes without saying to heed my estimates with a pinch of salt. However having taken into account the performances of last season, a number of losses to last season's first-choice XV, the influx of new signings along with the continued development of academy and Sale Jets players, I believe I have managed to ascertain a good grasp of what Sale's squad should look like for next season.
Of course this does not factor into account the likely injuries and fluctuating form that will inevitably occur throughout the season, nor indeed the mystery signing promised by one Steve Hanley earlier this month:
I do envision Michael Paterson as Sale's No.8 next season. Towards the end of the season past, 'Pato' showed some excellent ball-carrying skills scoring a wonderful individual try in the 55-12 drubbing of Exeter along with another strong touchline finish in the following match, a loss to Leicester Tigers. I believe the recruitment of Scottish Lock Nathan Hines for this season, as opposed to a 'true' No.8 to offset the departure of James Gaskell was done as a means of strengthening the Second Row with Paterson (who spent most of the season playing at 5) moving backwards in the scrum. Paterson is no slouch at 8 however, having played there at times during his stint with Cardiff Blues whom he joined Sale from. Look for increased opportunities for Tongan Vilhami Fihaki as well who should see increased gametime especially if Paterson is asked to cover the Second Row and Flanker positions. From what I have seen, Fihaki has a nice blend of speed and power along with a nose for the try-line but he was forced to play second-fiddle to incumbent James Gaskell last season having only joined in November.
The status of one Dan Baines remains up-in-the-air, with his Twitter bio claiming to be an "Ex player for Sale Sharks" yet no official announcement from the club regarding his departure. If the aforementioned "Hanley signing" does not turn out to be a Hooker, look for Cameron Neild to be third in the pecking order behind Marc Jones and Tommy Taylor. 19 and a converted Flanker, Neild was part of England's IRB World Junior Championship-winning squad in New Zealand this summer and figures to see substantial gametime at Jets level. Would not surprise me to see him make his first-team debut in the LV later this year.
Speaking of Hookers, I believe Marc Jones just has the edge on Tommy Taylor for the starting position. A big fan of both despite their contrasting styles of play, I think Jones' incredible form at the end of last season will give him a slight edge in Diamond's eyes at least to start the season.
It seems after a period of rotation early on in the season, Diamond and co. were able to settle on a clear first team for much of the last season. The losses of James Gaskell, Henry Thomas, Dwayne Peel and Rob Miller whilst significant have not altered that team too much, especially as Thomas spent most of the year as back-up to a transformed Vladim Cobilas and Miller fell out of favour after the announcement of his impending departure, with Gaskell, to Wasps. As I said above, I see Paterson replacing Gaskell at 8, whilst Chris Cusiter is a like-for-like replacement for Peel.
Of the other new signings, Luke McLean was clearly signed with the intention of being first-choice fullback (internationals permitting) and Nathan Hines will likely be one of the two first-choice locks. Darren Fearn it would seem will serve as depth for the prop position behind fellow arrival Alberto Di Marchi who will likely be preferred over Ross Harrison to start.
Finally a few players to keep an eye on: James Flynn, like Neild is a current Sale Jet but will likely be required to serve as third-choice at his position (Prop). Look for him to make his appearances in the LV Cup as his development continues.
Likewise Nathan Fowles should hopefully become more acquainted with the first team having fully recovered from a long-term lay-off last year and with Chris Cusiter being part of Scotland's current international set-up, Fowles will provide cover for backup Will Cliff. James Mitchell (who as likely fourth-choice was not included as of yet on the chart) will likely be in a same position. The same applies to Mike Haley when Luke McLean is away with Italy.