Coming off the back of a monumental victory over Saracens at the AJ Bell last weekend, Sale travel to Welford Road on Saturday afternoon looking to continue their push for a top-four place against fellow play-off hopefuls Leicester Tigers. Here's three things to watch out for:
Cusiter and MacLeod
With Danny Cipriani back with England ahead of their clash against Ireland on Sunday, Sale will turn once again to Nick MacLeod to lead the team from the fly-half spot. MacLeod impressed mightily against London Welsh (although there are few players who wouldn't) as he linked up extremely well with Chris Cusiter and their fellow backs as Sale ran in eight tries a fortnight ago. Cusiter was not named in Scotland's 23 to play Italy and has therefore been released back to Sale to play this weekend and his and MacLeod's linkup play will be crucial against a much sterner test in Leicester Tigers.
I said last week that if Sale were able to maintain parity at the scrum with Saracens they would have the chance to win. Indeed they did just that and more, spending big portions of the game with their forward pack in the ascendancy en route to a magnificent victory. It will be the exact same situation against Tigers on Saturday, whose pack showed their might last week decimating London Irish in a war of attrition at the Madjeski. Even without the Youngs brothers, Tom Croft and Dan Cole, Leicester's set-piece is what their gameplan is built around and Sale will need to go toe-to-toe with the Tigers' forwards if they have any chance of bringing their backs into the game and winning.
No Will Addison
Towards the end of last week's Saracens game, Will Addison fell awkwardly on his right knee and was brought off (albeit under his own power) immediately. This week, his is the most conspicuous absence from a near full-strength Sale first team and considering the Cumbrian's injury history, one fears another long-term injury lay-off is never far away from one of Sale's most impressive backs this season. However in his steed Tom Arscott is back into the Sale first team and Tom Brady makes a welcome return to the starting 23 following his Super Bowl victory on the bench as he looks to redeem his first team place. Brady has been working hard on fixing the issues that lead to his dropping earlier this season by Steve Diamond and the impact he makes off the bench is something to keep an eye on.
Prediction: Leicester Tigers 21 - 17 Sale Sharks
Sale have struggled extensively at Welford Road in recent years and collapsed spectacularly there earlier this season in the LV Cup, 29-13. Leicester are missing a number of key players through injury or international duty, but such is their strength in depth, they are still able to put out a formidable looking side. If Sale can keep the set-piece equal and numb its importance in the game, they will once again have a chance to snatch a famous victory. Its going to be close but Leicester's home advantage plus the absence of Sale's Danny Cipriani and Will Addison means I predict Tigers win a close one.
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For the second time this season, Sale Sharks produced an outstanding team display to secure a narrow victory over a top-four team at the AJ Bell, emerging victorious over Saracens for the first time in four years; 14-10 on Saturday afternoon. First-half tries from Sam Tuitupou and Jonathan Mills and a herculean second-half defensive effort was enough to hold off the north London side despite Sarries scoring a very dubious 79th minute pushover try to secure a losing bonus point.
A second consecutive win, both over last year's Premiership finalists, have boosted Sale up to 5th in the table at least until Leicester play Irish on Sunday. Next up is a daunting trip to Welford Road on Saturday as Sale look to continue their recent surge in the Premiership.
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Sale Sharks avoided a potential banana skid as they made an emphatic return to Premiership action Sunday, cruising to a 52-12 victory over rock-bottom London Welsh. So one-sided was the game that, as a contest, it was largely over by half-time at which points Sale were 35 points and five tries to the good.
Sale move up to 6th with today's win and are now only two points out of the play-off places. Up next they face Saracens on Saturday knowing they could potentially leapfrog the Fez Heads into the top-four with a victory. Saracens at home will be a very different challenge to today's game however.
Sale finally return to Premiership action on Sunday as they head down to Oxford to play a still winless (not) London Welsh at 1pm. Three things to watch out for:
Nick MacLeod starts at Fly-Half
With incumbent fly-half Danny Cipriani on the England bench for a second consecutive week, Steve Diamond is faced this week with the rare problem of not having his starting 10 available for a Premiership game. In Cipriani's absence, Dimes has opted for Nick MacLeod to start over Joe Ford - a move I'm fully in favour of. Whilst nowhere near the calibre of player Cipriani is, MacLeod is a steady game-manager whose experience and access to a first-choice Sale backline should see the Sharks able to still effectively implement their gameplan against Welsh. Whilst Joe Ford, in this commentator's opinion, has been left largely hung out to dry when given first team opportunities, often playing with a retreating back and a second-choice backline, he has still been unable to flash much potential as a creative playmaker in the Sale team. MacLeod is not exactly that either, but in his appearances, especially away against Munster, he has shown a better ability to engage his backline and incorporate his fellow players in attack. His individual defence and tackling is superior to Ford's as well. However none of this is likely to matter as..
Sale's gameplan will revolve around their pack
With an obvious advantage amongst the forwards in both scrummaging and breakdown ability look for Sale's entire possession game on Sunday to revolve around their pack. Especially now that they're missing Cipriani, Sale will look early and often to utilising their advantage at the scrum as a low-risk way to establish dominance and record points. They did it in the corresponding fixture against Welsh at the AJ Bell in September, then did it two weeks later at home to London Irish both of which were bonus point wins. Furthermore their monumental victory over Northampton a month ago was because of Sale's overpowering of the Saints' pack throughout. Sale will have marked this game as a potential banana skin, so look for them to play a tight and compact game to stress their forward's advantage from the get-go.
Tommy Taylor replaces Marc Jones at Hooker
Fully fit after spending the last few weeks rehabilitating a knee ligament injury sustained playing for England Saxons last June, Tommy Taylor is set to make his first Premiership start of the season on Sunday. Perhaps a little unfair on Marc Jones whose magnificent ironman-like performances this season have won universal acclaim, it is clear that Diamond will be using the rest of the current season to look towards next season where Taylor will graduate to starting hooker with Jones' departure to Bristol. Both Sale coaches Steve Diamond and Pete Angelsea have spoken highly of Taylor's return to first-team duty noting that they have observed him as being a stronger and smarter rugby player since his inury and Sunday will see just how secure Sale's hooking future is with Taylor at the helm.
Prediction: London Welsh 10 - Sale Sharks 31
Perhaps a little harsh on London Welsh who week-by-week have come closer to finally recording their first Premiership victory of the season, Sale will have come into this game very prepared for another trap game against the Oxford-based outfit and will look to dominate the set-piece for the entire game. I'm predicting Sunday's game not to be one for the ages but more a suffocating performance by the Sale pack who should lead Sale to victory, Cipriani or not. I'm also predicting Tom Arscott to continue his hot run of form by touching down at least once against his former team.
It is easy for Sale Sharks fans to cast an envious eye over their more successful rivals for a number of reasons. In recent years Northampton Saints and Wasps have had a frustrating ability to lure Sale's most promising players away from the AJ Bell stadium, Saracens and Bath - backed by huge amounts of capital - are able to bring in world-class talents from around the globe to bolster their squads for runs at the Premiership title and the likes of Leicester Tigers (because of their illustrious history) and Harlequins (for their revival from Championship team to Premiership title winners backed by a near-wholly English squad) gobble up media attention, television appearances and column inches.
Additionally in my years following Sale I have seen many lament the success Sale's more affluent and successful rivals have in finding rugby's equivalent of 'diamonds in the rough' - unorthodox rugby players from around the world or non-traditional Union backgrounds and then developing them into world-beaters. Kyle Eastmond and Sam Burgess are two rugby league converts Bath possess who are now playing rugby for England's national union team. Saracens have forged links with a multitude of clubs worldwide including Timisoara in Romania, Seattle in the USA and Sao Paulo in Brazil whilst Northampton have the undisputed best forward in the Premiership and maybe even the Northern Hemisphere in Samu Manoa - a backrower from the rugby 'hotbed' that is Concord, California.
But while it is fair for Sale to be envious of their fellow clubs for all the reasons written in the first paragraph, we must remember that Sale have arguably made the finest acquisition of a rugby player from a less-heralded rugby region in recent years. That player is Vadim Cobilas from Moldova. And he might just be the most underrated player in the Premiership.
As of February 1st 2015, Moldova are 28th in World Rugby's international rankings which puts them behind the likes of rugby powerhouses Hong Kong and Belgium. They will not compete in this year's Rugby World Cup and their lack of previous RWC experience means they are not classified within World Rugby's tiered system. For all intents and purposes, Moldova - the former Soviet state that ranks as Europe's poorest country with a population of less than 3,000,000 - are less than minnows of World or European rugby. Indeed they're barely a blip on the rugby radar.
Vadim Cobilas became the very first Moldovan rugby player to ever play professionally outside of the Russian Professional League upon signing for Sale Sharks in 2011. So how have Sale managed to turn a tiny rugby nation's first western export into one of, if not the, best tighthead props in the Aviva Premiership in the four years since his arrival?
It all begins with Sale coach Steve Diamond. After the disaster that were the reigns of Kingsley Jones and Mike Brewer consecutively as Director of Rugby, many Sale fans looked on with trepidation as Diamond announced the signings of a bevy of unknown players including the aforementioned Cobilas and Russian second-rower Andrei Ostrikov as part of the 'Diamond Revolution' to rebuild a Sale squad that had finished 10th the previous season.
Yet four years on, Cobilas' rapid adjustment and success within England's top domestic league has silenced the Sale DOR's critics and showcased the extensive knowledge Diamond possesses of Eastern European rugby gained during his previous tenure as the head coach of the Russian national team.
It was never a certainty that Cobilas would ever feature for Sale as most pickups from such untraditional regions very rarely receive the opportunity to turn out for a Premiership first team. So the fact that Cobilas has gone to become one of the first names on the Sale teamsheet every week is simply an astonishing achievement.
I do not believe it is overestimating Cobilas' importance to say that he, along with Dan Braid and Danny Cipriani, rank as the most crucial players in the Sale Sharks squad for every game week-in, week-out.
This is for a number of reasons. At 5ft 11 and 18st 8lbs, Cobilas is a force both in the scrum and around the park. A devastatingly efficient scrummager, Cobilas has been one of the least penalised props across the entire Premiership both this season and last despite regularly playing well above the league average minutes for a tighthead. In addition, Cobilas is an opportunistic and facilitating ball-carrier, often carrying more than five times a game with a surprisingly fluid off-load and passing game.
But it is Cobilas' role within the Sale squad that elevates him to critical importance. Last season's departure of fellow prop Henry Thomas to Bath Rugby left a hole, nay a chasm, at the tighthead position behind Cobilas. It was a void that Diamond attempted to fill with the signing of loosehead Prop and Italian international Alberto de Marchi, a move that would in theory allow the incumbent starter at loosehead, Eifon Lewis-Roberts, to cover tighthead as a backup to Cobilas.
The move has been a disaster. Lewis-Roberts, who in the past had been equally adapt at both positions is no long able to play tighthead at a Premiership-standard level and consequently has featured solely as a loosehead beyond the first few weeks of the season. Perhaps more importantly however is that de Marchi, who it is believed Diamond envisioned as also being able to cover tighthead, has struggled to compete at the Premiership level at his natural position of loosehead, never mind on the other side of the scrum.
With the modern game now mandating that top teams require at least three players on each side of the scrum because of the wear and tear all props undergo, Vadim Cobilas has undergone the Herculean task of single-handedly holding down the position for Sale over the last five months. The failure of the de Marchi signing has forced Diamond to get creative and encourage England Saxon Ross Harrison to convert from loosehead to tighthead to lighten the load on Cobilas, but such a conversion takes time and so far the results have been mixed - Harrison is probably still not ready to start a game at tighthead in the Premiership.
Simply put, Cobilas is in the midst of an unheard of feat. He is playing one of the most important positions in rugby - in which there is currently a noticeable lack of world-class talent - for a team in the thick of contention for a top-six place whilst having no recognisable backup when conventional rugby logic suggests at least two are necessary for a successful domestic team.
Cobilas has averaged a ridiculous 61 minutes per Premiership game this season for Sale including three entire-80 minute performances. These numbers are unprecedented in the age of Professional rugby union and what is even more remarkable is the high level to which Cobilas continues to play despite having already played 1162 minutes across all competitions this year.
But despite this, Cobilas is a name few from outside the North-West have heard of. He does not garner the media attention he deserves because of the relative obscurity of his citizenship (Moldovan) in the rugby-playing world. I have little doubt that his achievements would be more well-known had he been English or even English-qualified considering the shallowness of England's prospects at the tighthead position from grassroots to the national team.
Earlier this year Sale confirmed they had signed Vadim's younger brother Max on a trial basis until the end of the season. With Vadim's success, its not difficult to see why. If Max, a loosehead, is able to replicate the commitment and ability his brother has shown since moving to Sale in 2011, the Sharks may once again have found a true 'diamond in the rough'.
Vadim, now a firmly established cult figure amongst the Sale fans, is signed on until the end of the 2015-16 season at which point he will be 33 years old. Considering the late start to his professional rugby career (I believe he originally trained as a weightlifter) it is possible Vadim could stay at Sale well past 2016 although that is dependant on a variety of ulterior factors.
Overall Cobilas has been arguably the best signing Steve Diamond has made since returning to Sale Sharks and the huge impact he has made rivals that of other unorthodox imports such as Samu Manoa. The thanklessness of his role in the team however, combined with his nationality has meant that Cobilas is often overlooked when talking about the best forwards in the Premiership. Upon review it is clear that there are few players in the country less-heralded than Vadim Cobilas despite his standout performances. Hopefully the promulgation of this piece will begin to see Vadim finally get the recognition few outside the North-West give him.