Forget for a moment that Sale were sucker-punched over the weekend by bottom-of-the-table Bristol 24-23 which now sees the Sharks firmly embedded in a suddenly three-sided relegation quagmire, and instead think of happier times (i.e. last Saturday) when rumours continued to abound of England international fly-halves seriously contemplating moves back to the North-West.
With the Gregorian calendar now firmly fixed to 2017 and the embargo on contacting out-of-contract Premiership players now lifted, it is time for all teams – Sale included – to cast their eye to recruiting players for next season and beyond even if the (admittedly) slim possibility of relegation may cause one or two potential targets to pause before committing their long-term futures to Manchester.
But let’s proceed under the assumption that Sale will eventually win another game this season, comfortably avoid relegation at the expense of Bristol and/or Worcester and begin to utilise the nascent avenues of investment promised by the club’s new ownership group. But if Sale are to begin the assiduous process of establishing themselves as a sustainable element of English rugby’s elite as touted by said ownership since their acquisition of the club, significant parts of the current squad will need addressing and improvement. Below, ranked by urgency, are the positions which I expect Sale to invest in over the coming months.
First, the potential departed from the club this summer should be identified. As indicated by the out of contract list found here, Tom Arscott, Neil Briggs, Eifon Lewis-Roberts, Magnus Lund, Joanthan Mills, Brian Mujati, Mike Phillips, Peter Stringer and Sam Tuitupou are all currently on expiring contracts and have yet to be re-signed.
Director of Rugby Steve Diamond has already confirmed that Lewis-Roberts will be retiring at the end of the season and conventional wisdom would suggest that he will be joined by Peter Stringer (39), Mike Phillips and possibly Sam Tuitupou with the latter two set to turn 35 before the start of the 2016-17 campaign. Magnus Lund (34 next season) is also a contender for retirement.
Furthermore questions marks remain over whether Brian Mujati will be re-signed with the Zimbabwean’s omission from matchday squads earlier in the season in favour of Halani Aulika and Kieran Longbottom suggest he has fallen considerably down Diamond’s propping pecking order for whatever reason.
That leaves Arscott (29), Mills (32), Briggs (31) as the players that it would be reasonable to expect to be re-signed if for no other reason than their familiarity with the club, the club’s style of play and their ability to offer experienced rotation options throughout the course of the season.
With the possible loss of six first-team players factored in, here is the areas that Sale will unequivocally need to strengthen ahead of next season.
The most glaring current need in the Sale squad. Mike Phillips has thus far been a bust and a poor fit for a backline that demands quick delivery from the base of the scrum. James Mitchell has shown some promise in a number of cameo appearances over the season but at 21 is far too inexperienced to assume the mantle of the incumbent scrum-half should both Stringer and Phillips retire. Mitchell could be promoted into a full-time backup position next season but an experienced and (currently) international-quality scrum-half is desperately needed.
Possible Target: Nick Phipps (You read it here first.)
Since (apparently although there’s still not be an official announcement) Ross Harrison penned a three-year extension, the 24-year-old has been ripping up trees and has shown the potential to go into next season as Sale’s undisputed starting looshead. However with Eifon Lewis-Roberts retiring another prop to contend with Harrison and James Flynn is required should either’s form drop off. Three Premiership-quality props on either side of the scrum is an absolute must to be a top-six contender.
Possible Target: Val Rapava-Ruskin
With summer signing Lou Reed awol all season so far (and another contender to move on in the off-season), the Sharks are left with only three tangible options for the second row in Mills, Bryn Evans and Andrei Ostrikov. Acquiring a bulky, ball-playing lock to partner with Evans as first-choice pairing who also has the ability to add further ballast and ball-carrying ability to the habitually ‘lightweight’ Sale backrow would also be a boon.
Possible Target: Juandre Kruger (Not really but somebody in that exact mould.)
The jury is still considerably out on AJ MacGinty and/or Sam James’ long-term future in a number 10 shirt, but let’s face facts: if the opportunity to add George Ford or somebody of a similar calibre emerges, it is a move Sale have to make. Ford/MacGinty/Mugford with James also able to cover the position? That’s genuine strength-in-depth.
Possible Target: George Ford
Depending on whether Sam Tuitupou does opt to retire (or is re-signed), another vacancy could emerge in the Sale backline. Mark Jennings continues to be left out in the cold and Johnny Leota has struggled to replicate his bullish performances of recent seasons. If Will Addison moves over to Outside Centre full-time that logically slots Sam James into the interior midfield spot but another centre could still be looked at to replicate Tutiupou’s combination of powerful running and soft hands.
Should either Ciaran Parker or Jake Pope show enough in Carrington to warrant a full-time place with the first-team next season this suggestion is nullified. However should neither make the expected leap, an experienced tighthead is a possibility to replace Mujati (should he leave) and provide further cover for Aulika and Longbottom.
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