An abysmal first half in which Sale conceded four easily preventable tries to a buoyant Harlequins side proved to be the difference Saturday afternoon that has all but ended any faint hopes the Sharks held of still making the top-six. Despite a spirited second-half fight back that saw Sale score three tries and seventeen points to Harlequins' three, a trifecta of wasted opportunities, needless mistakes and two missed conversations meant Sale's ferocious comeback netted them nothing more than a conciliatory losing bonus point that keeps them, for now, a point above Harlequins in 7th.
On an afternoon where Sale looked to make ammends for a poor loss away to London Irish and keep the pressure up on a Wasps side who now look to have an easy stroll into a European place, there were disappointingly few reasons to be positive as a Sale follower.
One of the few reasons for optimism however was Tom Arscott whose electric running and two well-taken tries lit a fire under Sale for their eventual fight back. Indeed on Saturday afternoon Arscott was far and away Sale's most dangerous attacking threat as he has been all season and his place on the bench to start the game looks a horrendous misstep from coach Steve Diamond as Sale failed miserably to threaten the Harlequins' tryline until Arscott's introduction.
The Sale pack rebounded nicely from a shellacking at London Irish to hold the ascendancy over Quins at scrum time effectively all game. The 'mobile pack' employed worked well and should be considered again for Sale's two remaining Premiership games.
The fact that Sale were able to bounce back after a farcical first half to very nearly steal a win is both extremely encouraging and extremely infuriating. Whilst the Sharks showed excellent spirit, commitment, and, gasp, attacking incisiveness to force the match down to the final play of the game, one wonders how different the result could have been if they hadn't allowed a 16 point deficit at half-time. This was a game Sale lost rather than Harlequins won, although full credit must go to Quins who capitalised on Sale's mistakes mercilessly.
Oh boy where to start.
It's now time for Mike Haley to take a seat on the bench ahead of the clash against Newcastle in a fortnight's time. Haley was at direct fault for at least two tries (and an argument can be made that his thoughtless positioning allowed Danny Care to score Quins' fourth try that would bring Haley's culpability up to three tries) and he failed to remedy those with a below-average performance in attack playing without the incisiveness that has left him in recent weeks. What Haley, as a 20 year-old with little previous Premiership experience has done for Sale this season is nothing short of commendable but it's now time to give him a rest and allow Luke McLean another opportunity in the first team. And for those whom EQP is a concern, counterbalance McLean's inclusion with opportunities for Mark Jennings over the seemingly scrutiny immune centre duo of Sam Tuitupou and Johnny Leota (although I'll admit I thought Leota had a good game yesterday).
Danny Cipriani showed yesterday the risk that comes with the reward of having him as starting fly-half. Not for the first time this season, Cipriani looked overmatched by the opposition's line speed, often delaying a pass to his receiver for far too long and allowing the Quins defence to collapse in on both of them for minimal gain, and he struggled to keep a firm grip on possession, playing the ball too cutely at least three times resulting in a Sale turnover with Sale attacking inside the Quins half. In fact Sale's attack actually became that much more potent when Cipriani was replaced by Joe Ford following Cipriani's kicking of a penalty to touch out on the full which compounded a miserable afternoon for the Sale fly-half.
Sale's lineout accuracy plummeted with Marc Jones starting at Hooker yesterday and improved when Tommy Taylor came on after 45 minutes, imagine that. Taylor needs to start for the rest of the season.
Another anonymous game for Josh Beaumont who finally looks to be running out of steam after a fantastic 'rookie' campaign. Beaumont was unable to exert much pressure against the Quins lineout failing to record a single turnover or lineout steal and his role as a ball-carrying forward seemed diminished playing alongside TJ Ioane. It is imperative that Sale's attacking stratagem going forward makes better use of both Beaumont and Ioane as ball-carriers as yesterday afternoon often found only Ioane being used at any speed to attack the Quins defensive line neglecting Beaumont's obvious talents in that area.
The Sale rolling maul is dead, long live the Sale rolling maul. On multiple occasions yesterday, Sale's tactic of attempting to rumble over the line following a 5m lineout failed spectacularly as twice Quins were able to hold up the maul and win the turnover, putting paid to any attacking momentum Sale had. I'm also unsure why Sale have stopped throwing to the back of the lineout in such a great field position as the momentum gained from the Sale forwards switching round the back and joining the maul at speed as well as the delay the defensive team have in setting up an appropriate maul defence gives Sale a much better chance of scoring than throwing to the first jumper and having 16 players on both sides immediately pile in to a maul adjacent to the touchline.
Probably the worst game of the season for Magnus Lund who failed to make an impact anywhere on the pitch - be it tackling, turning the ball over or as a ball-carrier. In addition, his not-so-subtle attempt to keep a loose ball inside the scrum gifted Harlequins a penalty as Sale had the 5m scrum allowing Quins to safely clear the ball downfield.
I could go on in greater detail but the sooner I forget everything about this game not related to Tom Arscott the better. Yesterday's result makes it four losses in their last five Premiership games for Sale since beating Saracens and with Sale's inclusion in Europe looking to be relegated, at best, to the 7th place play-off and even that being dependent on Edinburgh beating Gloucester in next week's Challenge Cup final there is certainly a sense of pessimism hanging around Sale Sharks this weekend. Sale will now hope to utilise their week off better than they did last week before they take on Newcastle Falcons in a fortnight's time in their brand new away kit (a review of which, done by yours truly, is available here.)
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Sale Sharks will look to salvage their fledging hopes of European qualification and put further distance between themselves and a Harlequins team directly below them in the table when the two sides meet at the AJ Bell on Saturday afternoon. With tomorrow's encounter serving as Sale's penultimate home game of the season, here's three things to watch out for:
Tom Brady Returns
Making his first Premiership start in a Sale shirt since November's reverse fixture against Harlequins, Tom Brady returns to the Sharks starting lineup on Sale's right wing in place of Tom Arscott who drops to the bench. Whilst a period of up-and-down form initially led to Brady being dropped from the first team, chances for redemption have been hard to come by for the 24 year-old despite injuries to fellow wingers Mark Cueto and Will Addison at different points. Brady offers a more conservative and positionally responsible game compared to Arscott's lightning brand of attack and defence and it is perhaps this different approach Diamond is seeking to utilise against Brady's opposite number tomorrow afternoon, Charlie Walker, who has been in scintillating form this year. Yet if Brady's inclusion and Arscott's exclusion are being driven by a tactical approach, I feel perhaps the nostalgia of this being Mark Cueto's penultimate home appearance has clouded Diamond's judgement in dropping Tom Arscott instead of Cueto to make room for Brady, as Arscott is by far now the superior player in most, if not all, areas of the game of rugby. However a more likely explanation is that it's a minor injury related issue that's keeping Arscott off the pitch for the start of play and considering Arscott's form this season (he's been Sale's best attacking threat all year long by a long margin) perhaps keeping him fresh for the tired legs later in the game is not a bad strategy.
T.J. Ioane Also Returns
A mid-season signing that is yet to feature for the Sale first team beyond sporadically, T.J. Ioane, rescued from the purgatory of Sale Sharks' U23 games, will make his first Premieship start for the club at No.8 on Saturday. A signing made with an eye to next season as well, Ioane's contributions to the team during the final trio of Premiership games could have a large impact on the direction Sale's strategy takes into next season. So far Sale fans have only been treated to glimpses of Ioane's devil-may-care and aggressive style of ball-carrying and the prospect of all of he, Josh Beaumont and Magnus Lund all starting together giving a Sale a trifecta of ball-carrying forwards is an exciting prospect for a usually toothless pack (Beaumont aside).
Marler vs. Cobilas
The key matchup that could dictate which side gains the ascendancy at the scrum Saturday afternoon sees England and Harlequins first choice Loosehead Joe Marler take on Sale and Moldova's first choice (by default) Tighthead, Vadim Cobilas. The toll being Sale's sole first team Tighthead has began to show on cult favourite Cobilas whose form has noticeably dipped in recent games coinciding with an overall depowering of the Sale pack. However the structure of the final two months of Premiership rounds has increasingly allowed Sale longer breaks between games as the European competitions progress through their knockout rounds and one hopes the two weeks rest since Sale were sucker-punched by London Irish at the Madjeski will have allowed Vadim the time to recuperate and get back to top form. He will need to be at his best to match up against Joe Marler, the clear consensus starting Loosehead for England going into the World Cup whose temperament and discipline has also improved dramatically since being handed the Harlequins' captaincy. Whoever wins the battle at the scrum could swing the game in either team's favour.
Prediction: Sale Sharks 20 - 14 Harlequins
Having been blind-sided by an upstart London Irish team two weeks ago, Sale will be desperate to make amends against Quins and keep their top-six dream alive. With the weather taking a turn to the dreary this one probably won't be an eighty point thriller that both sides have shown their capable of competing in this season. Sale at home are a tough nut to crack and having beaten Quins at The Stoop already this year Sale should have the edge as long as they can slow the game's tempo down and stifle Harlequins's free-flowing brand of attack. Sale managed a similar task against Gloucester last month and I'm predicting the same outcome here albeit closer.
Bonus Prediction: A forward scores a try following their own break in the line.
Sale have proper ball-carrying forwards now, it's time to believe.
I theorised on the STR podcast a few weeks ago that Sale's updated away kit for the 2015-16 season could return back to the white/navy colour scheme that has played such a prominent part of the Sharks alternate uniforms in recent years.
However the official reveal last Thursday showed just how wrong I was - please see above.
Yes the new fluorescent yellow Sale Sharks away kit, set to debut on May 2nd against Newcastle in the last home game of the season, is a huge break from previous Sale kits. Welcome to a SharkTankRugby, and online first; a review of Sale Sharks' 2015-16 away kit.
First things first, with no official images available of the actual, manufactured kit or of it being worn by the players, I am basing this review on the official promotional, cgi image at the head of the article. This means that at this time, I am unaware of any additional design details on the back of the shirt, short or socks and I will update the review when more images become available.
Before we break down the new kit, piece-by-piece we'll start with the elephant in the room (review). The primary colour on the new shirt is striking and I applaud Sale and Samurai's ambition in taking a new, divergent path from more traditional styles to make the Sale brand more recognisable.
However I am not a fan of fluorescent colours in any sense. As a primary kit colour they looked amateurish when Northampton wore them last season and I am a firm believer that Sale would have been better off still adopting yellow as a primary colour, but in a diluted fashion without the fluorescence.
That said, the hi-vis yellow works well with the secondary navy colour that comprises Sale's home kit and it allows the navy design patterns throughout the kit to stand out more prominently.
Instantly noticeable on the new shirt is the distinct lack of sponsors splattered over the kit. Of course this may change when the shirt makes its in-game debut, however at this moment, the sole advertising logos, the relatively understated MBNA, really allows the shirt's intricate chest and shoulder designs to appear distinctive.
The shirt's design is akin to what Samurai have produced as Exeter Chiefs' kit manufacturer in recent years with the main decorations running parallel from the bottom of the shirt, up through the chest to the collar, and also down the sleeves. Samurai have done an excellent job however of fitting the 'Sharks' ethos into their kit template with the 'Sharks Fin' appearing halfway up the shirt as part of the standard Samurai design. The shirt design also corresponds neatly with that on the shorts with the 'Sharks Fin' mirrored as part of a continuous design, the symmetry of which, is very pleasing on the eyes.
The shoulder design on the promo image is unfortunately too difficult to discern at present although the navy designs do keep the shirt from appearing too plain, which it is clear was high on Sale and Samurai's priority list.
Speaking of which, I am not as big of a fan of the crescent chest design which feels a bit unnecessary with the shirt's other design elements already considered. An alternative option could have been to enlarge the 'fin' design further up to the chest to reduce the upper-body crowding this shirt suffers partly from.
As I mentioned earlier, the corresponding 'fin' design that mirrors that on the shirt is a strong main design feature on the shorts. However another nice touch is the two symmetrical additional fins on the inside leg which strengthens the Sharks motif further and keeps the shorts from being too basic.
As of yet there is no view of the short's back design although I imagine the main feature will be another MBNA logo across the player's backsides. Make of that what you will.
A relatively simple, uncluttered design on the socks which features both the primary and secondary colour schemes. The navy bands at the top and a replication of the 'fin' design found on the short's inside legs are both nice touches that shows the strong level of attention to detail found throughout the overall kit.
My immediate reaction to seeing the new kit on Thursday morning was initially one of displeasure - such a radical break from both the current Sale home shirt design and from previous Sale away kits came as quite the shock. However since then I have really warmed to the new design and I applaud Sale and Samurai's ambition in attempting something new and exciting in terms of growing the club's brand. Sale's 'Sharks' ethos really shines through as part of Samurai's chosen designs within their larger kit template and the symmetrical patterns on the shirt, shorts and socks looks great.
I'm not sold on the hi-vis yellow as a primary colour and the crescent chest design feels unnecessary but perhaps I'll be swayed when the kit makes its physical debut next month.
What do you make of the new away kit? Love it, hate it, don't really care? Tweet and follow @SharkTankRugby for further analysis and opinions on all things Sale Sharks.
Ask any Sale fan who has followed the Sharks with any regularity over the last five years what has been the biggest scourge of the club in recent times and their answer will most likely fall into one of two camps. It will be either the rushed relocation of Sale's home ground from Edgeley Park in Stockport to the AJ Bell Stadium in Salford that nearly three years later is only beginning to win universal approval as the indisputable 'right' move for the club OR the mass exodus of young, English talent with genuine international aspirations that Sale have suffered through annually over the last few seasons.
I fall well into the latter camp. In 2011, Sale lost Simon McIntrye and Carl Fearns both of whom are now firmly established first team players for top-six bound Wasps and Bath respectively. Ahead of the 2012-13 season, Sale lost Luther Burrell, who has gone on to win 11 full international caps for England, to Northampton Saints. Last season Sale lost all three of Henry Thomas, James Gaskell and Rob Miller, a trio of first team players who all opted to move south for larger pay packets and better opportunities of breaking into Stuart Lancaster's England team.
Losing these six players over the last four seasons has not been apocalyptical for Sale Sharks by any means, but looking at the collective success all six have enjoyed at their new clubs does give Sale fans pause for thought about what might have been.
However compared to other seasons, Sale have actually had a strikingly more successful negotiating period this year, as their retention has gone extremely well in terms of keeping hold of their English talent. The breakout stars of this year's campaign, Josh Beaumont and Mike Haley both agreed first team contracts for the next two seasons, Tommy Taylor re-upped for an extra season in December and the darling of North-West rugby (and currently Sale's only fully-fledged England international) Danny Cipriani turned down a big money move to Toulon to continue his push for England inclusion with the club that resurrected his career.
Additionally, whilst Sale are, as of today, only losing the talents of four first team players; unlike in recent years, the impact they will have on Sale's preparations for next seasons is significantly less. Marc Jones opted for a larger paycheck and a move back closer to his native Wales by agreeing terms with Bristol Rugby, however his departure will allow Tommy Taylor to assume the responsibilities of serving as Sale's first choice hooker and accelerate Taylor's imminent surpassing of Jones as the better all-round player, perhaps as early as next season.
Joining Jones at Bristol is Will Cliff, Sale's current backup scrum half. Whilst a vocal portion of Sale fans see Cliff as being the superior scrum-half to incumbent Chris Cusiter, Cliff only objectively bests the latter at box-kicking with Cusiter's extensive experience at the top-flight level giving the Scot the advantage in most other areas of scrum half play including decision-making and passing. Cliff, despite having been a regular in and around the Sale first team since the 2010-11 season, has never been able to consistently show the ability to match Sale's ambitions and conclusively earn himself the starting scrum-half shirt. The fact that Cliff's presence in the Sale first-team also inhibits the opportunities available to two England U20 scrum-halves, Nathan Fowles and James Mitchell, both of whom look to be better long-term prospects than Cliff also suggests Sale should be able to recover well from Cliff's departure.
Perhaps the biggest loss will be Michael Paterson, who despite a fantastic, team-of-the-season first year at Sale, has found his opportunities to play in his preferred role of backrower limited since joining Sale, and Northampton's apparent desire to play him as a flanker reportedly influenced his decision to join Saints next season. However in spite of his exploits last season, Sale's form this year since Paterson went down with a knee injury has actually markedly improved with Jonathan Mills and Nathan Hines in the second row and Josh Beaumont assuming the mantle of lineout captain in running a newly uber-efficient set-piece. Sale have already had to deal without Paterson over the last four months with injury and the early results suggest Paterson's loss will not be as significant as first feared.
Finally Sale are losing Mark Cueto to retirement. A club legend and the Premiership's all-time top try scorer, unfortunately Cueto is no longer the winger he once was and his play this season has rarely exceeded mediocre as his pace and 'footballing' skills continue to decline.
However despite Sale's relative success in retaining their top, young talent this season, it could quite possibly be time to panic ahead of Sale's 2015-16 season.
One needs only to compare the ambition being shown by Sale's fellow Premiership sides in terms of player recruitment for next season to become alarmed at the lukewarm preparations Sale have made for next season so far. When the fact that the most significant arrivals into the Premiership for next season in terms of international prestige are those being made by teams vying for Sale for the final European qualification places (Exeter and Wasps) and those well below Sale in the current table (Gloucester, Harlequins and London Irish) is considered, Sale's outlook for next year becomes alarmingly bleak.
With the natural turnover of players that impacts every Premiership club each year and the notables first team losses I've already mentioned, it is fair to say that Sale, with promotion of the youngsters and academy players ready for first-team duty considered, still probably need to bring in at least six or seven Premiership quality players across a variety of positions to at the very least consolidate their current position as a club with top-six and automatic European qualification ambitions with the recruitment being made by their closest rivals.
So who have Sale brought in for next season?
And that's it.
Neil Briggs, a soon-to-be 30-year old hooker who has struggled to remain third-choice in his position for fellow top-six rivals Leicester Tigers, is the only confirmed signing for Sale ahead of the 2015-16 season.
Let's compare that with Sale's closest rivals for the top-six and the three teams immediately below Sale this season:
Now I understand that big names don't necessarily translate to improved results and that many significant signings don't pan out - one need only look at Gloucester's fluctuating form this season for proof of that. But looking at preparations for next season, all of Sale's rivals, except Sale themselves, have managed to recruit a blend of international quality players, exciting youngsters and savvy veteran players, all three of which are needed to push up the Premiership table. I'm simply unsure how Sale hope to compete with such next season having only brought in a single player this late in the domestic season (I am not counting TJ Ioane who has already featured for Sale this season).
I also do not buy into the idea of a Rugby World Cup year and the subsequent later start to the domestic season pushing back traditional transfer activity until later in the year. If that was the case, London Irish wouldn't have signed a British & Irish Lion in Sean Maitland in January or Harlequins wouldn't have finalised a deal with Australian international James Horwill back in December. Of course players and their agents will use the later start in a world cup year to give themselves more time to find the optimum deal for the player and their families, however these 'summer signings' are usually reserved for the established, (typically Southern Hemisphere) internationals hoping to make a big money move to Europe upon the conclusion of their international selection - the Will Genia types that Sale cannot hope to afford.
Also, if a team like Exeter, not one of the bigger spenders of the Premiership, can manage to get the majority of their recruitment for next season completed by April and still bring in international calibre players in a world cup year, then why can't Sale, as a team ostensibly competing at the same level? Sale have shown under Steve Diamond that as a club they are able to make astute signings from unorthodox rugby markets and lesser known players in the global rugby sphere - however the meagre amount of signings made and the lack of any notable additions (sorry Briggsy) that Sale realistically should have already made if they were serious about building on their success of this season and continuing to push for a play-off spot next season, suggest a worrying trend for the Sharks.
The good news is that historically, Sale typically operate later in the transfer market once the big spenders of Europe have made their moves - that's just the reality of Sale's situation until they can average crowds of 12,000 - and that the world cup year does mean there are many more options of international (and therefore in most cases Premiership) standard players on the market for Diamond and co. to sift through.
But there should certainly be a sense of urgency at Carrington as we head towards the final four weeks of the Premiership season. Sale have done fantastically in recent years to field a competitive, top-six calibre team right alongside clubs with much larger budgets, deeper squads and sell-out crowds in traditional union hotspots. However the investments made in recruitment by the team's mirred alongside Sale in the Premiership's mid-table this season along with that of teams who Sale have drastically out-performed this year suggest that investment in the Sale team ahead of next season is paramount if Sale hope to compete in the new, more financially driven Premiership. Despite the increasing crowds this season, Sale can't compete with the Wasps and Baths of the league, however it is imperative that they find ways to match the additions their rivals are making. Should Sale fail to make any notable additions, even with further development of their burgeoning English contingent and return to forms for their less successful signings made for this season (see: Luke McLean), the Sharks could be leapfrogged by revitalised and much deeper Gloucester or Harlequins squads and slip into the bottom two or three places in the Premiership next year especially since Sale's laughably shallow depth will likely take further blows with the likely departures of more first team players before the season ends.
Is it time to panic for Sale then? Not quite yet. Sale have a strong, cohesive squad with an exciting pipeline of English talent to supplement itself that has shown in recent years they can compete for the top-six place. However the game so to speak has changed in the Premiership and with Sale's rivals drastically improving for next season, Sale will have to match in some form or another if they hope to maintain their ambitions of European rugby and deliver on their rhetoric of finally breaking back into a playoff place.
Do Sale already have the strength in depth and talent to compete for a top-six place next season? Or are further additions needed? Tweet and follow @SharkTankRugby for more opinions and analysis.