Sale travel up to Kingston Park on Sunday afternoon to face Newcastle Falcons in the return of the LV Cup. Sale are currently third in their group (5 points) behind Cardiff (8 points) and Northampton Saints (9 points) making this an absolute must-win if Sale stand any chance of qualifying for the competition's later stages. Here's three things to watch out for:
Rotation, rotation, rotation.
Further rotating the already-rotated team that was humbled 65-10 at Thromond Park last Sunday, Diamond has selected a variety of squad members with nary a first-teamer in sight. In come the likes of rarely-seen Phil Mackenzie, Vilhami Fihaki, Maxim Cobilas whilst less marginalised players (although still backups) such as Tom Brady, Mark Easter and Andy Forsyth retain their places for a second consecutive week. Its clear Sale are using the LV competition to give less-frequently used players some gametime and blood in some youngsters which brings me to:
Sale are fielding an incredibly youthful team for Sunday's game. By my reckoning, eleven of Sale's twenty-three strong match day squad are under the age of 25 and starting debuts are being given to academy products Ciaran Parker, George Nott and Sam Bedlow. In addition, fellow youngster Nathan Fowles is given a rare start whilst both Andy Hughes and Sam James make the Sale bench. Sunday's game should serve as an exciting opportunity for many of the graduating Jets to make an impact on the Sale first team as they continue to receive first team experience.
TJ Ioane starts
The newest Sale Shark (sorry Briggsy you don't quite count yet), TJ Ioane makes his first competitive start for Sale against Falcons this weekend. Similar to the Jets, this will be an opportunity for Ioane to show the Sale coaches just what he can do over an extended period of gametime and force his way into the first team plans. He starts at blindside flanker rounding out a mouth-wateringly hard-running back row duo of him plus fellow Pacific Islander Vilhami Fihaki which should give the Falcons defence fits and starts all game long.
Prediction: Newcastle Falcons 23-20 Sale Sharks
Falcons are fielding a slightly stronger and more experienced side whilst Sale obviously have eyes on the next few weeks in the Premiership and have opted to rest even some of their 'rotation' players. It should be a high-scoring affair, LV games usually are, but I can see Falcons' superior cohesiveness that comes from picking a stronger team as giving them a slight advantage.
After a few weeks of ominous silence from the club, Friday morning bore two great new pieces of news for Sale Sharks and its supporters.
Jonathan Mills, a firm fan favourite since joining from London Welsh in 2013, has re-signed for another two years, whilst former fan favourite Neil Briggs will re-join the club from Leicester Tigers again on a two-year deal.
Personally I am a big fan of both deals.
Mills has been an inspirational pickup in the two years he's been in Manchester, leaving everything he has out on the pitch week in week out. He's neither the biggest, strongest or quickest second row forward you'll ever see but he plays the game with incredible intelligence, grit and determination. He serves as both receiver and lifter in Sale's lineout and often uses his experience to help clear out players from the rolling maul, either when Sale are in possession or not - a thankless but important job. He's also a ready ball-carrier, willing to take on multiple defenders in a tight spaces to help clear space and let the Sale backs re-group. He's a great depth player and able to slot into the Sale first XV at a moment's notice, having him re-signed for another two years is great news.
A lot of similar things can be said about Sale new (old?) boy Neil Briggs. Playing with the awareness and exceptional rucking and turnover ability gained from his days as a flanker, Briggs is another combative figure that is a ready-made replacement for the departing Marc Jones. At 29 and likely brought in specifically to backup the Hooker position, he won't impede Tommy Taylor's development as first choice in the squad but will provide crucial depth, likely relieving Taylor at critical points in Premiership games and starting in the LV. Its great to see Briggs return to the club after three years away in France and down south and here's hoping he can make a similar impact upon returning next season that Magnus Lund has this year.
The only uncertainty this leaves us with now is the status of Shalva Mamukashvili. I believe he was brought in only on a one-year contract and the addition of Briggs likely suggests that he will not be returning to the club at the end of the season. Taylor, Briggs and Cameron Neild who has made his first appearances for the club this season, are likely enough depth for Sale going forward although there is always a chance Mamukashvili is brought back. His continued absences with the Georgian national team (he's been selected for their Spring fixtures next month) may also play a part in not being re-signed.
On February 6th 2014, Sale fans received official confirmation of a rumour long feared - James Gaskell (and Rob Miller) were to leave the club at the end of the season and join (then) London Wasps.
Gaskell, despite being only 23 at the time, had enjoyed a long and illustrious career at Sale Sharks that stretched from 2008, encompassing 97 appearances and selection in both the England U20 and England Saxons squads. Additionally, the Crewe-born forward was named Sale's club captain for the 2010/11 season making him the youngest player in Sale Sharks history to hold the honour at only 20 years of age.
Gaskell initially emerged from Sale's academy as a Lock, however as the team evolved and changed around Gaskell they struggled to replace the cult figure of their former bruising No.8 Sebastian Cabal following his departure in 2009. With the failed additions of Sisa Koyamaibole and later Andy Powell over the following two years, Gaskell increasingly began to start games as a No.8 due to Sale's lack of other viable options in the back row.
With a game built more on speed and finesse as opposed to a more traditional power and brute force approach, Gaskell was an incredibly unorthodox figure as a No.8. However as time passed he became increasingly effective in the position especially as Sale were able to partially build their scrum, forward strategy and lineout around Gaskell's unique talents.
Although it was never an ideal fit, Gaskell at No.8 (he also served as lineout captain) was an integral part of the revitalised Sale team that escaped relegation in 2012/13 and the one that defied the odds to force their way into last season's top-six against more heavily-favoured opponents.
So when it was confirmed early last year that Gaskell was to leave Sale to join rivals Wasps with a view to a larger wage and enhanced England international opportunities, it came as a huge blow for both the Sale faithful and the Sharks organisation who had nurtured Gaskell from his amateur days at Sandbach into one of England's premier young talents.
The most pressing concern for Sale from then onwards became: who was to replace Gaskell as Sale's starting No.8 from this season? This became even more problematic when Sale DOR Steve Diamond failed to bring in a positional replacement off the market ahead of the 2014/15 season.
As the season neared, Sale's prospects at one on the most important positions in rugby looked bleak. They had at their disposal; Mark Easter, a steady and defensively well-rounded flanker-cum-No.8 albeit with nowhere near the attacking prowess of his brother - the type a team needs for a top-six push, Michael Paterson, another flanker with minor experience as a No.8 from previous club Cardiff Blues, who, upon arrival at Sale the year before had been immediately converted to a Second Rower by Steve Diamond and Pete Angelsea, and Vilhami Fihaki, the most logical candidate for the starting berth being an out-and-out No.8 who had been capped by his native Tonga at the position in early 2013 but who had featured only sporadically since arriving in November 2013 for reasons known only to one Mr. Diamond.
They were a trio of players, all capable of playing the Number 8 position to a competent level but all three, for a myriad of different reasons, were never going to challenge the likes of Billy Vunipola, Ben Morgan or Serge Parisse for excellence and domestic success at the position.
Enter Josh Beaumont.
I will admit that the few times I was able to watch Josh Beaumont in a Sale shirt before this season, I saw plenty of positive areas to his game but was worried that Steve Diamond was going to waste his talents in a foolhardy attempt to convert him to a backrower.
The Beaumont I saw upon his promotion to the Sale first team from the 2012/13 season onwards was someone with incredible potential in many areas of the forward game, but someone who was best suited to succeed as a Lock in the Second Row - his mastery of running the lineout and expectational physical ability in the tight and in the air were apparent immediately.
But used as a No.8 in Sale's ill-fated Heineken Cup run in 2012/13 and indeed the twenty or so minutes in his only appearance in the 2013/14 season against Wasps before tearing the ligaments in his foot, I was less impressed with Beaumont.
Beaumont was too slow from the back of the scrum and in the loose, he possessed neither the foot speed of a more agile No.8 (like Gaskell) or the brute power and tackle-breaking ability of a Billy Vunipola to compensate. Added to that was a lack of ability to keep a hold of the ball in contact or when running lines. Beaumont's future I believed, was solely at Lock.
At the beginning of this season, it was Mark Easter who was handed the starting berth at No.8. To his credit, Easter played with the determination and levels of effort that are hallmarks of a consummate professional. However it became apparent to those watching Sale throughout September and October that Easter was not a viable solution at No.8 for this season, never mind long-term. For all his energy and desire, Easter's ten or more carries a game were often for nought as he was perpetually unable to punch a hole in the defensive line. Defensively he excelled as ever, but Easter, in a team sorely lacking in ball-carrying forwards, failed to make an impression over the course of the first seven or so rounds of the season as Sale floundered to a below-average start domestically.
It was an LV Cup game and an opportunity to rest Sale's Premiership starters at the beginning of November that began Beaumont's meteoric rise from a rarely-seen academy graduate to one of the first names on the Sale team sheet in a span of less than three months.
On that day - a 32-29 victory over Wasps - Beaumont, starting at No.8, was the star of the show. Playing with poise, vision and power with ball-in-hand and producing a startling display of line-out and tackling efficiency, Beaumont also scored a wonderful individual try to cap a Man-Of-The-Match performance to help lead a youthful and rotated Sale squad past a much deeper Wasps team.
In that single game, Beaumont showed that the year-long lay-off had only made him a better, more rounded and smarter rugby player. He showed glimpses of everything that Sale so desperately needed, and what Mark Easter had failed to deliver as a No.8 during the season's infancy - ball-carrying ability, vision, strength and a commanding presence in leading the lineout.
From there, there has been no looking back for either Sale Sharks or Josh Beaumont. A week later he was given the starting berth again, this time against London Irish in the Premiership and the former England Students' captain once again played an integral role as the Sale pack utterly annihilated the opposing Irish forwards.
Building off the back of his first two performances this season for Sale, Beaumont has become an essential component of a resurgent Sale team and gameplan, having yet to relinquish the starting berth he won back in November. Since then, Beaumont has also stepped up to take on the role of running the lineout in Michael Paterson's absence to greatly improved results regardless of whether he is playing at No.8 or Lock.
Contributing to Beaumont's increasing importance within the Sale team is his versatility within the pack. Often, Steve Diamond has opted to bring off a tiring second rower for either Magnus Lund or David Seymour, sliding Beaumont into the second row and utilising the 'three 7s' system to shut down opposing teams when holding a lead. It's this versatility that has meant Beaumont has yet to be substituted for Sale in games he has started this season and it affords Steve Diamond a gluttony of options for shuffling the squad around either in game or beforehand.
Beaumont's stellar performances were rewarded shortly before Christmas with the signing of a two-year extension to remain at Sale until 2017 (along with another breakout star of the season, Mike Haley) and it is not hard to envision Beaumont being a key building block for Sale and Diamond as the Sharks squad changes over the next few seasons. There is already talk amongst some Sale fans of Beaumont replacing Dan Braid as team captain at the end of the next season when Braid is likely to retire and such praise is certainly not unmerited especially with Beaumont's experience leading the England Students team at Durham University.
What does the future hold for Beaumont and Sale? There is talk of Josh having been in serious consideration to be picked for this year's England Saxons squad despite only appearing in seven Premiership games in his career and despite missing out this time, a continuation of his impressive form could certainly see him play his way into contention for England's RWC squad later this year.
On a domestic scale, the arrival of Samoan international TJ Ioane from the New Zealand-based Otago could see Beaumont being moved to second row a lot more frequently in the future with Ioane's preferred position being anywhere across the back row.
Ioane is touted as being utilised most effectively as something of a 'super sub' for Sale, being able to be brought off the bench and make an immediate impact as a ball carrier as games progress and opposing players tire. Therefore expect to see Beaumont being moved around a bit more towards the end of games, especially alongside Nathan Hines in the second row. Beaumont's importance to the scrum and the lineout dictate that he will play the full 80 minutes at every opportunity and both his and Ioane's presence on the pitch simultaneously will give Sale two exciting ball-carriers.
The ability and promise Beaumont has flashed in only a handful of games for Sale this season suggest that massive things are in store for the former Flyde man. There is a genuine belief emerging around the league that Josh Beaumont could feature prominently for the English national team the same way his father did 30 years ago should his exemplary form continue. Domestically, Beaumont is locked down with Sale for another two-and-a-half seasons and figures to continue to play a huge part in the Sharks' success going forward. Beyond that, it is not outrageous to suggest that Beaumont could one day be leading the Sale team out onto the pitch as club captain, the same way a certain James Gaskell did five years ago.
Hello, this is a new feature I'm aiming to run every week compiling stories about Sale Sharks from around the internet and offering some short takes on them.
Story: Marc Jones has been linked in today's MEN and Sunday's The Rugby Paper with a move to Bristol Rugby. Steve Diamond alluded to Bristol's interest in a number of Sharks players in an interview with Neil Leigh last week with The Rugby Paper also suggesting Sam Tuitupou could be another target.
My Take: Jones is an integral part of Sale's current setup and has been in fantastic form for Sale this season especially in the wake of Tommy Taylor's pre-season injury. I firmly believe Sale would like to extend his current contract and see both him and Taylor as a 1a/1b duo going forward (which is already, in my opinion, one of the best tandems in the league) but Bristol are able to far out-bid Sale in contract negotiations and a move could be a possibility for Jones, who at 27 may now be forgiven for aiming to maximise his earnings over the next few years. That said, a move to Bristol wouldn't further his chances of appearing for his native Wales and there is no guarantee that Bristol will be promoted to the Premiership this season; would Jones make the move with no guarantee of top-tier rugby next season, especially with Sale pushing for the top-six and European qualification again this season? Time will tell, I imagine its 50-50 for Jonesy right now.
Story: Another Sale story in today's MEN, Sale have confirmed that they have brought in Moldovan prop Max Cobilas - younger brother of Vadim - on a trail basis until the end of the season.
My Take: If he's anywhere near as good as his brother, this is another shrewd move showcasing Diamond's intricate knowledge of the Eastern European rugby scene. The article states that Max is a loosehead unlike Vadim who plays tighthead. Should he impress, a cross-scrum conversion ala Ross Harrison is a possibility especially as Sale are more in need of another tighthead than a loosehead currently or Max could be set to replace Darren Fearn who is still yet to feature for the Sale first team this season.
Story: The Daily Mail features an interview with Mark Cueto who suggests England snub players of call-ups if they play for an "unfashionable" lower-half side.
My Take: This is a common narrative in the media currently, especially if Danny Cipriani once again fails to get into the England squad for the Six Nations, however I think there is little truth to these beliefs. Whilst I believe Lancaster is overly conservative in naming his England squads, I don't believe he consciously opts not to choose players from the curiously ambitious "unfashionable" clubs as Cueto and Dean Richards suggest. Look at his selection of Sale's Cipriani's and Michael Paterson, London Irish's Marland Yarde and Newcastle Falcons' Kieran Brookes for England's test side for the tour of New Zealand last summer as evidence as well as the inclusion of Ross Harrison, Tommy Taylor and the aforementioned Paterson in the England Expanded Squad for the Barbarians match last May. I would be very surprised if Sale aren't well represented between the England EPS and Saxons squads for the coming internationals; Cipriani, Will Addison and Josh Beaumont are all tipped to be included in some capacity.
Picture credit goes to John Marfleet of Creative Capture
Sale bounced back from two successive weeks of disappointment with an emphatic toppling of reigning champions Northampton Saints, 20-7 in a comprehensive, 80-minute performance.
Sale look to bounce back from an absolute thumping last weekend against Wasps as they welcome reigning champions Northampton Saints to the AJ Bell hoping for a repeat of their 19-6 triumph in this fixture last year. Here's three things to keep an eye out for:
Sale's newest Shark, TJ Ioane
Arrived in Manchester Monday, announced Wednesday and straight into the team on Saturday, Sale's newest recruit Samoan TJ Ioane starts on the bench against Northampton. Sale, this season, have been a team in dire need of a ball-carrying forward to supplement Josh Beaumont's burgeoning skill in that area as well as an impact sub who can come off the bench and play at as high a level as those he's replacing. TJ Ioane looks to fill both roles nicely for Sale. Against a team as deep and talented as Northampton, Sale will need to make full use of their bench if they hope to secure a victory so Ioane's immediate inclusion is not a surprise. With both he and David Seymour selected onto the bench instead of the customary second rower and a back rower combination, look for Josh Beaumont to move to Lock as the game progresses and Ioane to make his debut for Sale at No.8
Can Danny Cipriani finally out-duel Stephen Myler for an England place?
With England's squad for the Six Nations set to be announced on January 21st and Stuart Lancaster likely to once again be in attendance at the AJ Bell, Saturday's game against Northampton and indeed fellow England fly-half Stephen Myler might well be Danny Cipriani's last chance to prove he deserves a place in the next EPS team. Lancaster controversially preferred Myler over Cipriani in England's squad for the autumn internationals to the ire of many and with Cipriani's well-publicised future dependent upon international selection, how he performs against Myler and Saints may very well dictate where his future in club rugby lies. An exemplary performance might finally allow Cipriani to pip Myler for that elusive third England Fly-Half spot whilst a below-par showing could well be the final nail in Cipriani's England career and seal a potential move to Toulon at the end of the season.
How will the packs compare?
Continuing their dominating run of form into this season that saw them win the Premiership title last season, Northampton come this game as current Premiership leaders and for all intents and purposes, the best team in England. However Sale have caught a slight break in regards to Saints' options for this game. Northampton are without three influential figures in their scrum - Captain Dylan Hartley is suspended, first choice second rowers Courtney Lawes and Christian Day miss out through injury whilst No.8 and the best forward in England currently, Samu Manoa, misses out on compassionate leave after the death of his brother. With a backline as dangerous as the one Saints possess, the injuries in their forwards could possibly swing the game in Sale's favour as Sharks - missing only Michael Paterson from their first choice pack - look to target the forwards as an area to establish dominance. That is very much easier said than done however especially since Saints still have the likes of Salesi Ma'afu, Callum Clark, Tom Wood and a returning Alex Corbisiero at their disposal. How the packs weigh up come scrum-time and at the line-out will have a major influence on how this game turns out but Sale will rest a little easier knowing Saints are missing such key players.
Prediction: Sale Sharks 22 - 17 Northampton Saints
Sale are desperate for a win having lost both of their last two games in humiliating fashion but with home advantage, the return of Dan Braid and Sam Tuitupou, much more impact coming off the bench and Saints missing some key forwards, I'm going to be cautiously optimistic and predict a close victory for Sale.
This morning, Sale finally revealed the identity of the mystery 'Southern Hemisphere forward' they had been linked to for weeks confirming that TJ Ioane, Samoan international and former Highlanders and Otago star, has joined the club with immediate effect.
Ioane, according to the MEN, has penned a deal with Sale until the end of the current season with an option to further extend his contract after the season concludes, a clause likely to be in the hands of the Sale coaching staff should the 25 year-old impress over the next five months.
So where does Ioane fit into the Sale squad?
Ioane's preferred position is that of blindside flanker which is where he got the majority of his playing time in Super Rugby, although he is also considered to be a 'loose forward' able to play anywhere across the back row. Indeed Ioane made his first two test appearances for Samoa late last year playing as an openside flanker against Canada and England.
Considering Sale's current set up, Ioane will most likely play a depth role, probably off the bench, providing cover for all three back row positions especially with Dan Braid's current recurring injury woes. His ability as a ball-carrier and surprising pace also makes Ioane a more apt replacement for incumbent No.8 Josh Beaumont should the latter be in need of replacement, and allows Diamond to move Beaumont to Lock giving Sale two powerful carriers playing simultaneously in the pack.
Was this the right move for Sale? Its hard to say. Ioane appears to be the type of quality depth/rotation option Sale fans have been crying out for since the start of the season and with Michael Paterson's injury, Sale have been bereft of strong ball-carriers in the forwards, something that has hurt the team greatly in the final quarter of close games. That being said, the back row is probably one of Sale's stronger points and although needing additions, it is not an area we desperately needed to add in the same way another Tighthead Prop is.
And what does this mean for Vilhami Fihaki? The Tongan No.8 was brought over in similar fashion in November 2013 but has been used sparingly since his arrival for reasons unbeknownst to everyone but the Sale coaching staff and has only featured once for the Sale first team this season despite the team's early season woes at Number 8. With over a year-and-a-half still left on his contract I would imagine Ioane's arrival unfortunately signals an impending release or a loan move for Fihaki.
Steve Diamond's decision to rest and rotate key Sale first team members during Sunday's visit to Wasps proved to be an abject failure as Sale's utter lack of playing squad depth was exposed to the degree of five tries and 41 points conceded in a listless and dire performance against a merciless and rampant Wasps.
Unequivocally one of the low points of the season, Sale were ripped apart by a Christian Wade and Joe Simpson-inspired Wasps team who seized momentum from the first kick-off and seemingly scored with every foray into Sale's half during the first 40 minutes. The Sharks were simply unable to cope with the quick pace and dazzling handling ability of the Wasps' backs and the sheer force of the Wasps pack. Without Dan Braid and Sam Tuitupou because of injury and illness respectively and Danny Cipriani on the bench, Sale's usually prudent defence was ripped apart especially by the aforementioned Wade who turned in a MOTM performance to further stake his claim for a place in England's Six Nations squad. Mark Jennings and Joe Ford both struggled mightily to contain Wasps' runners in the 10-12 channel and twice Jennings overcommitted from the defensive line allowing Wade to run into space and set up a Wasps' score.
The game was well and truly out of reach before half-time when Joe Simpson waltzed in unopposed after Mike Haley was held up and the ball turned over to push the score to 27-9 leaving many amongst the travelling Sale faithful to wonder how different the game could have turned out had Sale utilised some of their best and most effective players from the very beginning. This was only further reinforced when Wasps crossed again twice in the second half to secure a bonus point victory and bring their total up to 41 points on the day with Sale only able to muster a 76th minute try in response.
Indeed this was a huge coaching failure on the part of Steve Diamond. The decision to rotate the team was clearly made with one eye on the Northampton Saints fixture at home next weekend but considering the relative strength and form of the currently league-leading Northampton compared to that of Wasps who came into today's game neck-and-neck on points with Sale, surely it would have been wiser for Diamond to focus on Wasps and try and secure a crucial away win against a team set to go head-to-head with Sale for the European qualification places instead of a brutally difficult home tie against one of England and Europe's leading sides in Northampton next week. What makes the rotating squad even more perplexing is that Sale have two dead rubber games in the ECC in a fortnight's time which would have served as a fantastic opportunity to rest players and give other members of the squad some gametime and development.
What is most concerning however is the massive drop-off in terms of ability between Sale's first choice XV and the reserve squad players that today's battering at the hands of Wasps' highlighted. Sale are beginning to really struggle now that injuries and general fatigue are taking effect on squad availability as the season progresses. When fully fit, Sale have a starting XV that can go toe-to-toe with any team in the Premiership and many in Europe, however beyond that Sale's depth lacks the quality and ability that true contenders have - Wasps, Bath, Saracens etc. Players like Mark Easter, Will Cliff and Joe Ford are perfectly good premiership-standard players, but they are not of the quality that makes up a true top-six club's squad. Comparing the members of Sale's wider squad to that of Leicester, Harlequins or even Wasps is laughable and shows how precarious a situation Sale are in if they lose even a handful of their top-class players (Braid, Paterson Cipriani et al). As desirable as it is to be able to rotate the squad and still pick up results the way the teams at the top of the rugby pyramid do, Sale are frankly in no position to do so and today's result only proves that explicitly. Let me be clear, this isn't a game Sale lost because they played particularly poorly, Sale lost today because the quality of Wasps's players lead them to be so much more proficient in all areas of the game, trenchant with ball in hand and well-drilled defensively that they simply blew away a much less talented Sale team.
Ending on a slightly more optimistic note; a bright spot for Sale this afternoon was Josh Beaumont who impressed mightily in his 35 minutes off the bench not least in the lineout that immediately became more disruptive, challenging and adept with his introduction. Shalva Mamukashvili also caught the eye as a disruptive force at the breakdown, exerting a lot of pressure on Wasps' ruck and their acting scrum-halves throughout the game.
Should Sale storm to victory over Northampton Saints next Saturday with a number of key individuals coincidentally excelling due to their rest this week, it will go a long way to soften the blow of a bitterly disappointing afternoon in Coventry. But for now, Sale are left licking their wounds after a humiliating defeat for the team and especially for their coach.
Sale look to bounce back after a disheartening 79th minute loss last week against Leicester Tigers with a trip to Wasps's new home The Richoh Arena on Sunday. Here's three things to watch for:
If you haven't seen the Sale team announced earlier today its worth taking a look at:
Haley, Addison, Leota, Tuitupou, Arscott, Ford, Cliff, Easter, Lund, Seymour, Ostrikov, Hines, Cobilas, Mamukashvili, Di Marchi.
Bench: Harrison, Lewis-Roberts, Jones, Mills, Beaumont, Cuister, Cipriani, Cueto
That's an interesting selection and a big gamble from Dimes, time to make sense of it.
The names in bold are those who have been brought in to replace regular first-team players. As you can see, Steve Diamond has rotated this side massively. Danny Cipriani, Chris Cusiter, Josh Beaumont, Eifon Lewis-Roberts and Marc Jones - all key components of the orthodox Sale first team - are starting on the bench. My thoughts are that last week's result against Leicester has lead to a marked change in Diamond's approach to the Wasps fixture and Diamond is seeking a much more potent and influential bench to change the game in Sale's favour in the second half. However its a surprising departure from Diamond's coaching ethos considering the lack of trust Diamond has placed in his reserves and rotation players this season - exemplified by his decision to only use four of his eight bench players against Tigers last Saturday. Obviously that won't be the case on Sunday and I wouldn't be surprised at all to see six or seven substitutions take place simultaneously at the start of the second half, it now becomes a case of whether Sale are still in the game at that juncture. Big games are needed from the likes of Alberto Di Marchi, Mark Easter and Will Cliff.
Joe Ford gets the start.
Perhaps the biggest risk taken by Diamond with his team selection is having Joe Ford start at Fly-Half in place of Danny Cipriani. Cipriani has been in fantastic form this season for Sale whilst Ford has been relatively average in the spot-starts and cameo appearances he has made sporadically throughout the season. Against a top-six challenging team with a backline as dangerous as Wasps', Ford is going to have put together a complete performance if Sale are to have any chance of winning. That means nailing his penalties and placekicks, combining well with Sale's (full strength) backline, moving the chains territorially and holding up well defensively.
With Cipriani's future still up in the air, this is a big opportunity for Ford to state his case for more regular appearances even if Cipriani stays (since his re-signing depends on being selected for England which would necessitate Ford being picked at 10 in Cipriani's absence).
Tom Arscott Returns
Lost a tad in the discussion around Diamond's rotation is that Tom Arscott is fit and starting again. Arscott had been, up until his injury against Harlequins in November, one of Sale's most impressive and consistent performers having been shifted from fullback to left wing with the arrival of Luke McLean and his return is certainly a welcome one.
Having the quicker and more positionally-sound Arscott in place of the floundering Mark Cueto is a big boost for Sale especially paired with a rejuvenated Will Addison on the other wing and the exceptional Mike Haley at 15 giving Sale an incredibly dangerous counter-attacking back three to match Wasps'.
Prediction: Not even going to try and predict this one. Sale's selection make work perfectly and the bench carries Sale to a crucial away win over our now local rivals or Wasps may have a 30-point lead by the time the benches are ready to clear.