Casting only a cursory glance at the final score of Sunday afternoon's game and you'd be forgiven for thinking Sale ran out comfortable winners against Gloucester. In the end it was a hard fought victory for the Sharks, characterised by playing the final thirteen minutes with only fourteen men after yellow cards to Nathan Hines and Danny Cipriani and some wonderful defensive intensity to hold Gloucester to only six points across the entire 80 minutes. In the end, a try apiece from Johnny Leota and Josh Beaumont either side of half time along with three penalties from Danny Cipriani proved to be the difference as Sale moved a point behind Wasps in the hunt for a top-six place and put even greater distance between themselves and Harlequins and Gloucester, now languishing in 8th and 9th respectively.
Sale will now enjoy a week's break from action as the European competitions recommence for their knockout phases before facing London Irish at the Madjeski on April 12th. Maybe this week we'll see some new signings announced for next season with no other distractions? One can wish.
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After a seemingly infinite break (two weeks) from domestic rugby, Sale Sharks return to Premiership action with the visit of Gloucester rugby to the AJ Bell Stadium on Sunday. With Gloucester only six points and two places below Sale in the current Premiership standings, Sale know a win is absolutely vital if they hope to remain in the hunt for a second consecutive top-six finish. Here's three things to watch out for in Sunday's game:
Harrison starts at LH
Arguably the biggest surprise of Diamond's team selection for Sunday's game is that Ross Harrison starts at Loosehead Prop ahead of current incumbent Eifon Lewis-Roberts. However this is a move I am definitely in favour of. Despite being asked this season to gradually convert to Tighthead Prop to cover the team's weakness in depth at that position, Harrison has still impressed me more this year playing as a Loosehead (en route to him earning an England Saxons call up in January), and when Lewis-Roberts status' as the most penalised Loosehead in the Premiership and his slowing mobility and effectiveness are considered, this seems a great opportunity to give Harrison vital gametime with a view to have him take over as a long-term starter (so long as Sale can bring in a backup tighthead for next season). Harrison's youthful motor will also be crucial in outplaying his opposing number, John Afoa, Gloucester's tighthead who he will match up against in the scrum.
Ostrikov in for Mills
Another break in the formula Diamond has consistently used in picking his Sale team's this season, Andrei Ostrikov makes a surprise return to first team action bumping Jonathan Mills down to the bench. Often used in Diamond's tenure as extra grunt when facing top-four sides with scarily strong packs, Ostrikov has featured relatively little this season for Sale even with Michael Paterson being ruled out for four months earlier late last year with injury. Call me a cynic, but could Ostrikov's inclusion be a negotiating tactic on Dimes' part with the Russian second rower's contract set to expire at the end of this season and a number of French clubs, I'm told, interested in his services, to show that Ostrikov still has a part to play in Sale's first team setup. Regardless of my conspiracy theories, Ostrikov should provide additional power in a Sale scrum that will look to dominate the set-piece, an area Gloucester have struggled mightily with in recent seasons.
No TJ Ioane or Will Addison
Two of the more conspicuous absences from the Sale 23 for Sunday's game come in the form of flanker-cum-No.8 TJ Ioane and Will Addison. Ioane's exclusion and Jonathan Mills and Magnus Lund's inclusions are likely a tactical choice that signals Sale's gameplan on Sunday will to slow the game's pace down with emphasis on breakdown competition and a methodical and team-orientated forwards play as opposed to the lightning pace and devil-may-care attitude Ioane displays with his ball-carrying. Addison's absence is more concerning however as his form this season has been arguably the strongest of any of the Sale backline which suggests his ommission is down to him still suffering the effects of the knee injury he suffered late in the Saracens game last month despite the three week 'rest'. Considering Addison's previously nightmarish injury history, once again Sale fans are forced to wonder if Addison will play any part in the remainder of the Sharks' season.
Prediction: Sale Sharks 22 - 11 Gloucester Rugby
With wins in six of their eight home Premiership games this season including back-to-back victories over both of last year's Premiership finalists Northampton and Saracens, Sale have once again turned the AJ Bell into something of a fortress this season. Sale's impressive home form combined with Gloucester's mediocre results on their own travels (three wins out of eight) and struggles at the AJ Bell (they're yet to win away at Sale since before the Sharks moved grounds) gives a firm advantage to the home side. Both teams have also been in exhilarating attacking form this season which suggests Sunday's game should feature a number of tries, although the dreary weather forecast suggests it won't be akin to the shooutout the teams engaged in during the corresponding fixture at Kingsholm earlier this season. A strong looking Sale team with some interesting depth across the twenty-three man matchday squad, rested and reinvigorated by the two week break should have enough, even without Will Addison, to record a comfortable victory over a yo-yoing Gloucester side still struggling to hit top gear, especially as Gloucester are missing influential figures in their backline such as Greig Laidlaw and Henry Trinder.
Got a different prediction? Disagree that this week's game is a must-win? Tweet (and follow) @SharkTankRugby for more opinions, analysis and predictions.
With Sale failing to progress past the group stages of both the European Champions and LV Cups, their focus for the final two months of the season rests solely upon their domestic campaign in this season's Aviva Premiership. With that in mind its time to assess how Sale's 2014-15 campaign has gone so far and what results from their last five games of the season and final league position would constitute a successful season.
The Season So Far
With 17 rounds gone in this season's Aviva Premiership, Sale currently sit a comfortable 7th with nine wins and 43 points and are on track to compete in the competition playoff for the final ECC place against the 8th placed Pro12 and Top14 teams. Still firmly entrenched in the battle for the automatic European qualification places and the top-six/four however, the Sharks trail 6th place Wasps by only five points although they themselves only sit four points ahead of Harlequins in 8th. Unique to this season however is the fact that every team from Exeter to Sale are all in the midst of a battle for the top-six with only 10 points (two bonus points wins) separating Chiefs in 2nd and Sharks in 7th (and only a further six points separating Sale and Gloucester in 9th). Sale's performances this season have ranged from the sublime (a 20-7 victory over Northampton) to the dire (41-16 loss away to Wasps) although throughout Sale have played a refreshingly expansive and creative brand of attacking rugby that has seen them score the 6th most tries and pick up the (tied for) 5th most bonus points in the Premiership this season. A string of wins over the next five games for Sale could still see them feasibly qualify for the top-four and a play-off place (although gaining zero points in consecutive weeks earlier this month at Leicester and Bath make play-off qualification extremely unlikely) whilst a number of losses could see both Harlequins and Gloucester leapfrog the Sharks.
The Run In
Simply put, the next five rounds are massive for Sale's season. Let's take a look at who they have scheduled:
I would expect (although I know this is a dangerous game to play) Sale to have enough to beat Gloucester, Falcons and Irish, especially with Michael Paterson, Marc Jones and their trio of internationals soon returning to the first team. The Quins and Chiefs games are harder to predict however. Sale have shown enough ability and depth across all three of their games against Exeter and Harlequins in the last 12 months to produce three quality wins and could do so again, however both of these opponents contain substantially more quality and coherence within their respective squads and should both be much sterner tests of Sale's ability.
A Successful Season?
With the table as close as it currently is, it is expected Sale will need at least three, possibly bonus point wins, to finish either sixth or 7th and enter the ECC next season. So what would constitute a successful 2014-15 season for Sale Sharks? Considering their indifferent start to the season (two wins out of their first six Premiership games) and the relative lack of investment Sale are able to make into their playing squad compared to the likes of Wasps, Bath and Saracens - their fellow rivals for the top-six - I would argue that European qualification by any means, finishing either in the top-six or 7th, would be another hugely successful season for Sale Sharks especially when the monetary and attendance benefits it comes with are factored into play. Indeed a top-six finish for the second consecutive year and third time in four seasons would once again go a long way in helping Sale to climb towards financial sustainability and compete in an increasingly money and market driven league.
What would you consider a successful season for Sale this year? Leave a comment below or tweet (and follow) me @SharkTankRugby on Twitter. Oh and don't forget to listen to the brand new SharkTankRugby podcast here.
It says a lot about the progress Sale Sharks have made over the past 18 months that many will feel bitterly disappointed that Sale were unable to come away from The Rec last night with any points against the mega riches of play-off bound Bath. However at the same time, performances like Friday night's show just how much progress Sale still need to make if they are ever to challenge for a top-four place again. Indeed in yesterday's game we saw the extent in quality that separate teams like Bath and Sale as Bath outmuscled, outsmarted and outexecuted Sale comprehensively as they cruised to a 12-3 victory. A solitary Danny Cipriani penalty was unsurprisingly not enough to secure any points for Sale as four Tom Homer penalties proved to be a comfortable winning margin for Mike Ford's team.
With Sale already eliminated from both the European Champions Cup and the LV Cup, the Sharks now have just over three weeks to regroup and prepare themselves for a final push for a top-six place over the last five games of the season starting with Gloucester at home.
Anything to discuss? Disagree with my interpretation of yesterday's game? Tweet me @SharkTankRugby for further analysis and opinions.
Sale Sharks will look to rebound from a disheartening 28-8 loss last weekend against Leicester Tigers as they travel to The Rec to face a Bath Rugby side who have lost their last three games on the bounce and slipped to 5th in the table. The game is live and televised on BT Sport 2; so here's three things to watch out for on your television screen tomorrow night:
Bath's missing internationals
Fuelled by Bath's early season domestic success, the English Six Nations team this year contains a large contingent of Bath players all of whom have played substantial roles in the Red Rose's campaign thus far. Because of their inclusion in England's starting lineup against Ireland last Sunday however, Bath will be without the services of stalwarts Dave Atwood, George Ford, Jonathan Joseph and Anthony Watson against Sale on Friday - four key first team players. It will be worth watching therefore just how Bath are able to cope without some of their talismanic players in a key domestic matchup for both sides. The Bath lineup, admittedly, does look incredibly strong even without those four but with Sale able to field almost all of their own first-team regulars we will see how important Bath's quartet - especially George Ford - are for their gameplan.
Return of the three 7's
In a shock move, Sale supremo Steve Diamond in naming his team for tomorrow's clash has opted to bench incumbent No.8 Josh Beaumont and revive the 'three 7s'™ trio of openside flankers to form Sale's backrow against Bath. This means that all three of Dan Braid, Dave Seymour and Magnus Lund will start the game with Lund acting as a stand-in No.8.
For me this is an incredibly risky strategy that reeks of conservatism. Josh Beaumont is Sale's standout ball-carrying forward and whilst Lund is no slouch in that area, he does not have the disruptive impact that Beaumont does.
Instead it looks as if Diamond is hoping to counter Bath's very strong ball-playing pack with all three flanker's ferocious tackling and breakdown work and then use Josh Beaumont and TJ Ioane as impact players off the bench. However with no real attacking threat from the forwards for the first 50-60 minutes with the latter pair on the bench this is a stratagem that could easily blow up in Diamond's face especially if Bath roar out to a substantial early lead (just like what happened last weekend against Leicester) and Sale are then forced to play catchup. The imbalance in the Sale backrow could also directly affect Sale's ability to establish dominance early at the set-piece, the sort of thing that weighs heavily on a referee's mind later in the game. Personally I would have started Beaumont and Lund alongside Braid and bring Seymour and Ioane on as the game necessitates. But we will see; sometimes risk are necessary especially against the top teams and if it works Diamond will look like a genius.
Tommy Taylor starts
In what is likely his most important game since his return from injury back in January, Tommy Taylor gets the start at Hooker following a chest/shoulder injury to Marc Jones that forced the latter off midway through the first-half against Tigers last week. Whilst Taylor has impressed with a noticeably increased ability in the loose since he recovered from a nine-month lay-off, his set-piece work, particularly his line-out throwing has fluctuated wildly in his first games back. Particularly noticeable is the dropoff from having Marc Jones conduct the lineout to when he is replaced by Taylor, with a number of errant throws from TT usually to start his appearance. Taylor's set-piece work will take on added importance then this week with Jones' absence and the likely so-so conditions from playing at The Rec on a Friday evening which will give added importance to territory and field positions. Simply put, Sale cannot afford a slow start from Taylor and one hopes he'll have had extra time to choreograph lineout sequences with Nathan Hines et al this week with the known severity of Jones' injury. It is also a cameo appearance for next season when Taylor will replace Bristol-bound Jones as the team's incumbent Hooker. A big game is needed from TT on Friday.
Predicition: Bath Rugby 13 - 15 Sale Sharks
Likely to be another dire game akin to last season's shock 12-11 victory, the Friday night conditions and Bath's absentee England stars could easily make the pitch a quagmire and the game an attritional battle of territory. Thus I am going for optimism after last week's shellacking at Welford Road, predicting a low-scoring game with Sale narrowly emerging on top. Sale's relatively full-strength squad buoyed by the inclusion of TJ Ioane for some impact off the bench could well swing the game in their favour especially with Bath missing the players most influential to the team's success and suffering a number of injuries to their front row - Paul James for example. (I'm also predicting a lot of scrums, again.)
Pending confirmation on a possible extension for Andrei Ostrikov aside, it looks as if the re-signings of Magnus Lund to a two-year extension earlier today has concluded Sale Sharks' internal contract discussions for this season. Now the focus at Carrington will have turned to next season and recruiting from outside the club.
Over the last 12 months, coinciding with the switch of kickoff times to Saturday afternoon and participation in the European Champions Cup, Sale have enjoyed an increase in home attendances and a larger media profile which has also buoyed the club's coffers. All of this has apparently lead to owner Brian Kennedy giving Steve Diamond the green-light to invest in the squad, at least that is what Danny Cipriani alluded to in the interview following the announcement of his contract extension.
Both a positive and a negative, Sale's squad for the 2015/16 season has so far seen relatively little turnover. The positive is that, unlike in recent years, Sale have managed to retain the vast majority of their burgeoning home-grown talent including breakout stars Josh Beaumont and Mike Haley as well as their key first team members - Danny Cipriani, Dan Braid et al. Additionally, Sale's only outgoing first-team members (details here) are all, arguably, replaceable, especially with the emergence of some of Sale's academy players such as the aforementioned Beaumont and Tommy Taylor.
The negative however is that there has been absolutely nothing announced from the club in regards to players joining the Sharks for next season onwards for over a month with Neil Briggs the only player announced so far to be (re)signing for 2015/16. This is especially disconcerting with it now being March and relatively late in both the transfer and playing season, and with many of Sale's rivals making serious statements of intent with the players they've brought in for next season. Harlequins' signing of former Wallaby captain James Horwill and London Irish's capture of All-Black Prop Ben Franks and Scottish international Sean Maitland come to mind.
And whilst I unfortunately have nothing to offer in terms of news about players joining Sale for next season, I can speculate on which areas of their squad Sale will look to recruit for, for the upcoming 2015/16 season. The good news is Sale are only three or four players away from being genuine play-off contenders, so long as the players they recruit are of top-class ability.
*FYI the hopelessly optimistic proposals are just that - hopelessly optimistic and not who I can envision Sale signing, although one can dream.
Probably the most pressing need for the Sale squad next season, Sale cannot keep relying upon Vadim Cobilas to play 80 minute games in the Premiership if they are serious about mounting another assault on the top-four/six next season. Ross Harrison could eventually turn into a stalwart at the position but his conversion to the opposite side of the scrum is still a long way off. Some genuine quality to relieve Cobilas off the bench and spot-start in the LV/ECC is desperately needed and should be Sale's top priority for next season.
Hopelessly optimistic possibility: Owen Franks
This is slightly more difficult to predict. If Andrei Ostrikov leaves (and there are substantial rumours that he is off to France at the end of the season), Sale will likely need at least two locks for next season. Both Jonathan Mills and Nathan Hines are on the wrong side of 30 and are currently the only two locks in the Sale first team squad (please keep Josh Beaumont at No.8, Dimes). If Ostrikov stays, Sale will still need another lock although that need is less pressing with England U20 star George Nott likely to make his first-team debut next season.
Another position that is difficult to predict what Sale will do with, the imminent departure of Will Cliff to Bristol Rugby has raised serious questions regarding Sale's options next year. Chris Cusiter's international career with Scotland is likely to be nearing its end with his omission from their matchday squads in this year's Six Nations so that should not be a barrier for Cusiter to play the brunt of Sale's games as starting scrum-half next season. However behind Cusiter Sale desperately lack Premiership experience. Do they stick with what they have and employ promising but raw prospects Nathan Fowles and James Mitchell as Cusiter's backups or do they move for an experienced nine to give their England U20s an easier transition to regular Premiership duty?
Realistically suitable target: Peter Stringer
This one is more cut-and-dry. Mark Cueto is hanging up his boots on a fourteen-year career at the end of the season and it is unlikely either Phil Mackenzie or Charlie Ingall are retained beyond this season. Sale currently have Tom Arscott, Will Addison and Tom Brady as first-team wingers, Mike Haley at fullback and Luke McLean able to cover both positions. If McLean is utilised more next season as a left wing - a position for which he has shone for Italy in this year's Six Nations - then Sale will certainly need another fullback to compete with Haley for the no.15 shirt. If Diamond sees McLean more as a fullback next year, then Sale will need to recruit another wing especially if questions persist over Will Addison's fitness and Tom Brady's defence.
Realistically suitable target: Tim Visser
Feel there are any positions that need strengthening that I have overlooked? Get involved with the comments below or tweet me @SharkTankRugby on Twitter.