Four games. Four wins.
Sale Sharks continued their perfect start to 2016 with their third blowout win in as many games, routing London Irish 38-10 at the AJ Bell Stadium on Saturday to move up to seventh in the Aviva Premiership table.
In a truly dominant performance from Sale, who transferred their impressive European form back to domestic duty, tries from Brian Mujati, TJ Ioane, Sam James, Neville Edwards (x2), and Sam Tuitupou saw the Sharks comfortably clear the Exiles who, despite going into half-time down only 12-10, withered in the face of constant pressure to the tune of twenty-six unanswered points.
Lewis Hughes cannot remember the last time he did a match report that had no 'neutrals' or 'negatives'. Follow @SharkTankRugby on Twitter for more news, analysis, and opinions on all things Sale Sharks.
'Dominant' is a word rarely used in conjunction with Sale match reports, that is unless Sale have found themselves on the wrong side of a thumping at Welford Road or Allianz Park. Yet 'dominant' is the perfect word to describe Sale's 38-5 victory over Newport Gwent-Dragons on Thursday night that guaranteed the Sharks a home quarter-final in the next round of this season's European Challenge Cup. Tries from Brian Mujati, Josh Beaumont, Neville Edwards, Mike Haley, and a first half penalty try comfortably confirmed Sale's supremacy over their Welsh opponents who lacked the physicality and structured defensive positioning to turn the 'winner-takes-all' clash into anything resembling a competitive match.
First and foremost, Sale had the ascendancy at the set-piece across the entire 80 minutes; their scrummaging dominance led directly to two of their five tries whilst their lineout was seamless once again, a perfect 100% efficiency bolstered by the often-unheralded Bryn Evans' two lineout steals in opposition. But adding to Sale's usual areas of strength within their weekly game plan was the intuitive and incisive play of their backline who exploited Newport's porous defence to outstanding effect in a display that highlighted all the positive work backs coach Paul Deacon has done since crossing codes in the summer.
The numbers are particularly telling; Sale led comfortably in metres made (621-336), defenders beaten (25-21), clean breaks (22-5) and offloads (20-8) with standout performances from Mike Haley (143 metres made on 19 carries, two defenders beaten, two clean breaks, four offloads and a try), Neville Edwards (67 metres made on nine carries, two defenders beaten, four clean breaks, and a try), Josh Beaumont (67 metres made on 14 carries, two defenders beaten, two clean breaks, an offload and a try), and overlooked man-of-the-match Cameron Neild (98 metres made on 14 carries, a whopping eight defenders beaten, four clean breaks, two offloads, and was tied for a team hight nine tackles).
There are two players I do want to single out especially however - Danny Cipriani and Sam James. The former reacted in perfect fashion after being overlooked for Eddie Jones' inaugural England squad with a seamless display that combined a perfect goalkicking performance with his unique brand of attacking creativity that was particularly prominent in the creation of Sale's forth try. Cipriani attacked the Newport defensive line just inside the Dragons' half, produced a perfectly weighted grubber kick which he collected himself, changed direction, shrugged off a tackle and delivered a huge pass to a streaking Neville Edwards who sprinted away to score in the corner. Cipriani is clearly relishing playing alongside his childhood friend Edwards, and the pair's combination of attacking vision and blazing speed has formed a deadly, game-changing tactic for Sale this season.
A quick note also on Edwards; although I'm not ready to put him in an England shirt just yet, the 27-year-old has shown a pleasantly quick development as a Premiership player - at least in attack - and has scored six tries in only seven appearances this season, and five in his last four.
Similarly worthy of praise is Sam James, whose passing ability and creative vision was paramount in Sale's refined attacking stratagem working as well as it did against Newport. James is an ideal fit for the 'second pivot' role within the Sharks' backline that takes the onus off Cipriani to be the sole creative force during Sale possession, and James' composure and decision-making - which at only 21-years-old is superb - allowed Sale to coherently link their back-three into excellent attacking opportunities all game long. Take Mike Haley's try for example. With the ball on Newport's tryline, Sale moved possession wide to James who was part of a three-on-one overlap just to the left of the far goalpost. Instead of immediately throwing a pass to Haley on his outside and make Haley either evade or pass himself to escape the scrambling Newport defender thereby reducing how central Sale's final try would be, James instead took the ball to the line himself, forced the sole Newport defender to engage him in a tackle before spreading the ball to his outside man and allowing Haley the easiest of finishes. It is such simple play and smart decision making that is indicative of James' immense ball-playing talent and which makes him such an asset for the Sharks to employ in their backline.
The only point of disappointment during Thursday's match was the crowd, or lack thereof, of 4,015. A Thursday night Challenge Cup game in January that is being televised was never realistically going to draw more than a crowd that size, but considering the impressive nature of the Sharks' win, it is a shame that more weren't there to see it.
Due to Saturday's results Sale will face Montpellier at the AJ Bell Stadium in their Challenge Cup quarter-final sometime between the 7th-10th April, with the winner of that match facing the winner of Gloucester vs Newport in the tournament's semi-finals.
Next up for the Sharks however is a return to Premiership duty with the visit of London Irish on Saturday. The Sharks have played arguably their best rugby of the season over their last three matches and a big victory against a struggling Irish side would be the perfect appendage to a superb first month of 2016.
Follow @SharkTankRugby on Twitter for more news, analysis, and opinions on all things Sale Sharks.
It's only been a week sincethe last entry on The Shark Tank but it feels like a lifetime. Sale have a huge clash against Newport Gwent-Dragons on Thursday night with the winner guaranteed a home quarter-final in a competition that looks set to be Sale's best chance of silverware this season. With that in mind (or not), let's get down to some questions:
In a perfect world Sale would have the resources at winger to play Will Addison at his preferred position of outside centre, creating this hypothetical conundrum of how best to field both Addison and Sam James. However we do not live in a perfect world and unless Addison switches club, I believe that either his immediate future remains in the number 14 shirt or Sam James will have to drop to the bench to accommodate both in the same matchday 23 especially as - in Mark Jennings - Sale have a similar calibre of prospect better suited to play the bulldozing inside centre role the Sharks typically utilise .
If however I am wrong and James and Addison do eventually comprise the same midfield one day for Sale, Sam James' size, distribution, and vision is far more suited to the inside centre role with Addison's pace and surprising strength better utilised running lines outside of him.
Flynn is now 22-years-old and has quietly been one of Sale's most impressive performers this season following an early season injury to the aforementioned Eifon Lewis-Roberts. Flynn's problem however, is that after returning from injury, Lewis-Roberts has also shown himself as continuing to be able to hold his own both in the scrum and around the park.
Yet an eye must be cast towards the future and with Lewis-Roberts turning 35 this season, ensuring Flynn continues to get ample game time this season will be paramount to the latter's development. I believe the ideal time for Flynn to take over as the main backup at Loosehead prop behind Ross Harrison will be from the beginning of next season onwards; Lewis-Roberts has been able to defy father time this season but it is unrealistic to expect him to continue to put up a similar level of performance in 2016-17, and with Flynn performing so capably this year, there is no point delaying the inevitable any longer.
Not necessarily, no.
Although it is no secret that club owner Brian Kennedy is looking to sell the club, the rhetoric from the club has always been that self-sustainability financially is the current goal and that any profits will be re-invested into the team - this is something I do not doubt.
What Sale need to stay viable and maintain competitive with the rest of the Premiership is above all an increase in average matchday attendance to well beyond the supposed break-even figure of 8,000.
Since the move to the AJ Bell, marketing has been a big area of concern for the club but is an area that is finally beginning to see improvement. Unfortunately, despite the AJ Bell being a superior stadium to Edgeley Park in every aspect except public transport links, many fans have stayed away from regular attendance in Salford and the club have been unable to replace those numbers with new fans from the new catchment area.
What Sale need is for those stay away fans to return and see the drastic improvements the stadium and matchday atmosphere has undergone in the short time the Sharks have resided at the stadium, with their support being reflected in the investment in the squad which the side needs to push it beyond the mid-table.
I actually wrote about this a few years before I started The Shark Tank although I believe the website it was published on (Sulia?) no longer exists meaning that particular team is lost to the abyss of internet irrelevance. Luckily most of a prospective 'All-Time Sale Sharks XV writes itself'*:
15 - Jason Robinson
14 - Mark Cueto
13 - Graeme Bond (probably the most difficult position to determine)
12 - Luke McAlister
11 - Steve Hanley
10 - Charlie Hodgson
9 - Richard Wigglesworth
8 - Sebastian Chabal
7 - Dan Braid
6 - Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe
5 - Jason White
4 - Christian Day
3 - Vadim Cobilas? (Another tough one)
2- Sebastian Bruno
1 - Andrew Sheridan
If I've left anybody out, please remember this list was written ad hoc, off the top of my head.
Unfortunately I do not make any money out of this website and therefore cannot offer Alex any royalties.
Questions like this are always difficult because of the paucity of information regarding outgoing players on the market. That said I will give it my best go:
I have presumed this is asking who comprises Sale's best starting backline out of the players currently at the club. In my opinion that is:
15 - Mike Haley: Who else?
14 - Will Addison: Best not-a-winger at the club
13 - Sam James: Johnny Leota is stronger and more experienced but nobody outside Cipriani and maybe Addison possess the distribution and vision James does, even at such a young age.
12 - Sam Tuitupou: When he's not recklessly jumping out of the line, Tuitupou is still an incredibly capable - and physical - player. Underrated passer as well.
11 - Tom Arscott: Best actual winger at the club.
10 - Danny Cipriani: Who else?
9 - Chris Cusiter: Frustrating to watch orchestrate an attack, but Cusiter's all-round game is admittedly superior to Peter Stringer's.
Lewis Hughes wishes he made money out of this website, he'd even chip in a few quid for a new tighthead. Follow @SharkTankRugby on Twitter for more news analysis, and opinions on all things Sale Sharks
Vadim Cobilas gone.
Tommy Taylor possibly/probably gone.
Rumours of a 'break out' clause in Danny Cipriani's contract.
No re-signings announced.
No new recruits announced.
Over the last few weeks there has been a palpable sense of frustration amongst Sale fans, and for good reason.
Every iota of Sharks-related news aside from Sale's victory over Wasps a fortnight ago has been negative, focusing on rumours of players leaving, dwindling attendances, and general pessimism. The Tommy Taylor saga has been particularly depressing for Sale fans as the Sharks look set to lose another promising stalwart to the lure of the Ricoh Arena despite the club's best attempts to keep him.
And with nothing noteworthy forthcoming from the club to get supporters in the least bit excited (in fairness it's not their fault that nobody cares about Number Cruncherz or MBNA staff visiting Carrington) it became obvious that Sale needed something, anything, to generate some positive feeling around the club's current direction.
Luckily that break came Wednesday afternoon with the announcement of Eddie Jones' inaugural England squad for the upcoming Six Nations tournament.
The more negative fans out there will point to the supposed overlooking of Danny Cipriani as a reason to be pessimistic, both about Cipriani's chances of ever making it back into the England international fold and the odds that he will remain unswayed by the potential mega-riches on the table from France.
And although those are valid concerns, with only two fly-halves named in the 33-man EPS and Cipriani's below-average place kicking in the Premiership this season, it is not necessarily a tragedy that Cipriani didn't make it in. Instead it gives Sale's mercurial star time to hone his kicking to international standard with an eye on England's summer tour to Australia. It's also hard to doubt that Cipriani will be first in line for a callup should either George Ford or Owen Farrell become injured before or during the competition.
But we shouldn't let those worries dampen what should be celebrated as fantastic news for Sale and Josh Beaumont.
Beaumont has been one of the stand-out performers at Number 8 in the Premiership for a season-and-a-half now, and his abilities as a ball-carrier and lineout extraordinaire are such that he has earned deserved international recognition despite having only made forty senior appearances for Sale.
It is unknown whether Eddie Jones sees the former Fylde and Durham University graduate as better served to feature for England in the second row or in his current back row position at Sale. What is worth noting however is that Beaumont's inclusion came at the expense of Gloucester's No.8 Ben Morgan - no mean fate in itself - which suggests Beaumont could find himself as Billy Vunipola's understudy-in-waiting during this year's Six Nations.
This is likely only the start of what promises to be a glittering international and domestic career for Beaumont, but we shouldn't lose sight of the importance for Sale of his inclusion onto the international stage.
For a start, Sale now have more representatives in the current England squad than Newcastle Falcons, London Irish, and Worcester Warriors combined, and are tied with Gloucester Rugby, whose flanker, Matt Kvesic, is their sole delegate.
Beaumont's inclusion should also finally begin to dispel this bizarre myth that you cannot be selected for international consideration if you play at a club north of the Midlands. It is my belief that if you're talented enough you will be considered for England duty as Danny Cipriani's selection for last year's Six Nations squad should have proved. There are no 'trendy' or 'untrendy' clubs despite what Paul Ackford - and a worryingly high percentage of Sale fans - think.
And although I do not believe Beaumont's selection will have any impact on whether Tommy Taylor opts to stay at Sale or leave for Wasps, it hopefully gives the rest of Sale's young English contingent pause for thought that international aspirations can be achieved with the Sharks. The idea of an 'anti-Northern' bias is folly, and Sale, by nature of their position within the modern Premiership, will always give their players every opportunity to demonstrate their abilities and international pedigree to the RFU.
So congratulations to Josh, who, in a sign of things to possibly come, will celebrate his first senior England selection by captaining Sale for the first time against Pau on Friday. Beaumont is fully deserving of his spot within Eddie Jones' new-look England side and an exciting future lies ahead both for himself and English rugby.
Earlier this week on Twitter, I bemoaned the recent lack of noteworthy Sale-related news to write about especially with the Sharks having a rare week off from duty.
However I have been served a timely reminder to always be careful what you wish for.
On Friday night, esteemed Francophile journalist Gavin Mortimer tweeted out that according to French newspaper L'Equipe, Vadim Cobilas had agreed to a three-year-deal with the Top 14 side Union Bordeaux Begles (h/t to 'Tobys' on Twitter for initially pointing Gavin's tweet to me). Within minutes, a short statement was posted on Bordeaux's website confirming a deal was concluded, with Sale following suit early Saturday morning with a short post on social media:
I'll state the obvious: this is a huge loss for Sale.
Over the course of five seasons with the club since being plucked from obscurity from Russian side VVA-Podmoskovye, Vadim Cobilas became a well-established cult figure at Sale with fans chanting "VADEEEEEM" with every carry, tackle, or substitution; served as the cornerstone for a very strong and effecient pack in recent seasons; and became the first Moldovan rugby player to ever feature in the Aviva Premiership.
Following Henry Thomas' departure at the end of the 2013-14 season and the bust that was Alberto de Marchi's signing, Cobilas did what is now thought to be impossible in the modern game and played nearly every single minute at the Tighthead position for the entire season with only an uncapped 19-year-old as backup, yet remarkably saw little-to-no drop-off in his performances.
Last year I wrote that Cobilas could well be the Premiership's most underrated player due to the seismic influence he wields on Sale's scrum - which, of course, is the focal point of the club's gameplan each week - and his unbelievable durability and consistency.
And if his scrummaging performances weren't enough to gain him a cult following, Vadim also has the distinction of being probably the best goalkicking prop in the game today:
However all good things must eventually come to an end and Cobilas will now depart Manchester at the end of the season with well over 100 appearances in a Sale shirt to his name, for a very ambitious Bordeaux side who have began to put together an impressive squad capable of challenging for domestic and European honours.
The money, weather, and probably the rugby prospects, will be far superior in the South of France compared to England's North-West, and although losing a player of Cobilas' ability is a huge blow, you cannnot blame him for making the move to the Top 14, especially after all he has done for the Sharks since joining in 2011.
The question for Sale now though is: what next?
Cobilas will likely still play the heavy duty minutes between now and the end of the season with, I'd imagine, Brian Mujati gradually seeing extended minutes as the season progresses. Next year, Mujati will clearly be Sale's first choice Tighthead but what do the club do behind him?
Ciaran Parker made his first team debut last season, and is an England U20 international with extremely bright prospects. The decision Sale will soon have to make however is whether they are comfortable having a relatively untested Parker serving as Mujati's primary - and possibly even sole - backup should Mujati go down with injury.
Where the Sharks feel Parker is in his development will be critical in deciding how they approach the loss of Cobilas. Should they feel Parker isn't ready to make such a huge leap into regular Premiership duty, I wouldn't be surprised to see Sale sign an experienced prop to help ease the transition for the 20-year-old and give themselves another option for the front row.
Just please keep Ross Harrison at Loosehead.
The other aspect of this to consider - and knowing full well that money will not be the only factor in whatever decision is made - is do Sale use Cobilas' newly freed up wages to throw money at a certain Mr Taylor? I don't have salary details but if redistributing an extra portion of Cobilas' salary towards Tommy Taylor can keep the latter at the club and Sale just opt to have Parker, possibly Max Cobilas (?), or another Eastern European gem Diamond can unearth to cover Mujati, that would be a more acceptable response than losing both Taylor and Cobilas and having to sign both a new Hooker and Tighthead. We will see.
There is one silver lining to keep Sale fans cheery until some re-signings and new recruits are announced however. In hindsight, how much of a relief is it that James Johnston opted to join Wasps - who left Coventry this week for Worcester without playing a single game - instead of Sale? If you think Sale are in trouble now with Cobilas, it could have been so much worse.
Often when Sale win, the national papers and rugby sites credit Danny Cipriani as the inspiration behind the Sharks' victory regardless of whether the fly-half's performance was a decisive factor on the day. It's lazy journalism designed to catch the general reader's attention by attatching the only truly famous figure currently at the club to any story about the Sharks.
Saturday's win will not be one of those stories.
Cipriani out-duelled his opposite number Jimmy Gopperth to kick all fifteen of Sale's points in a narrow but well-deserved victory over Wasps to leapfrog the recent London expatriates - and misfiring Bath - to climb to 7th in the table.
It is a much-needed win for Sale that should rekindle their recently dormant top-six hopes and one which hopefully suggests the Sharks underachieving demons of 2015 have been firmly placed behind them.
Lewis Hughes thinks that Saturday's win could end up being a turning point in Sale's season. Follow @SharkTankRugby on Twitter for more news, analysis and opinions.
It's difficult to identify possible replacements from around the league should Tommy Taylor leave due to the lack of concrete contract information pertaining to players available. However one player I would place an emphasis on attempting to lure to Sale is Newcastle's George McGuigan.
A 22-year-old with a growing body of work in the Premiership, McGuigan would be an excellent long-term replacement for Taylor, both due to his impressive potential that has seen both the Irish and English unions expressing an interest in having him represent their respective countries and his combination of youth and top-level experience that would allow him to thrive in a larger starting role from next season onwards.
Leicester and Munster have both been rumoured to be interested in signing McGuigan suggesting an imminent departure from the North-East could be feasible.
I'm very high on Mark Jennings but I do not believe his distribution skills are quite at the standard yet to be an elite Premiership inside centre whilst Sam Tuitupou's form has declined significantly in effectiveness this season.
By process of elimination then that leaves Johnny Leota who make no mistake is more suited to play inside centre - as he does for Samoa - than outside to take the no.12 shirt. If Sale had any serviceable depth on the wings, Will Addison - who is a superior player to Sam James at this stage of their respective careers - would be my preferred partner for Leota in Sale's midfield.
However Addison is too important - and talented - in the 14 shirt to be moved off the wing which leaves Sam James to take the outside centre position. Although still a very raw talent, James has all the ability and skills to become an elite player and increased Premiership exposure will do the 21-year-old good, especially since he has the highest ceiling of any current member of Sale's backline.
Possibly but I fear the Sharks' failure to beat Harlequins, Gloucester, and Newcastle - even so early in their campaign - is inexcusable and will cost them dearly as the season progresses since few other sides have struggled as much as the Sharks have so far in 2015/16.
Granted, there is still a lot of rugby to be played, but Sale dug themselves into a hole so deep, so early in the year, I fear they will struggle to get out of between now and May, and that means a lower mid-table finish.
To win the Challenge Cup, Sale would have to redistribute and refocus their playing resources away from the Premiership and commit themselves fully to playing their absolute strongest side in Europe.
However given Sale's perilous financial position, declining attendances and the decreased allure of the Challenge Cup, it is not a decision I believe the club should - or would - take. It is however Sale's best chance at qualifiying for the Champions Cup in 2016-17. See above.
I'm glad this came up as I was hoping to address it as a sub-section for today's piece.
Today's Telegraph ran an article confirming Danny Cipriani has rejected an offer from France and refused to break a clause in his contract to terminate his contract with Sale a season early. This is obviously fantastic news for Sale especially as it suggests positive noise vis-a-vis player retention and recruitment behind the scenes as an auxiliary to Cipriani's hopes of earning international recognition.
That said even if Cipriani is staying - and who even knew he was possibly leaving? - Sale do need to address their fly-half stocks. Joe Ford and Nick MacLeod are not Premiership quality no.10s and the Sharks would be wise to invest in a better backup fly-half and promote Tom Morton ahead of next season
Follow @SharkTankRugby on Twitter for more news, analysis and opinions on all things Sale Sharks.