2014/15 was something of an up-and-down year for Sale Sharks. From two wins in their first six Premiership games, and unilateral defeat in the inaugural European Champions Cup, to challenging the top-four and for a play-off place in early 2015 before sliding down the table in the last five rounds of the Premiership, fans of the North West's only Premiership club were treated to a roller-coaster of a season that left us asking big questions regarding the state of the club, its future direction and its ability to be competitive next season.
However the 2014/15 season review is for another day.
Today SharkTankRugby looks at every member of the Sale Sharks first team who turned out for the club this year - assessing their performances for the entire season and attaching an arbitrary grade which you may or may not agree with.
But discussion is all part of the fun.
Will Addison - A-
12 games played and three tries scored doesn't do Will Addison's most productive season since breaking into the Sale first team back in 2011-12, justice. Whilst injuries once again derailed the end of Addison's season after injury against Saracens in February, Addison was fantastic when he could stay on the pitch. Lightning quick, great hands, astute awareness across the pitch, Addison was as dangerous with ball-in-hand as he was responsible defensively and as a tackler where he ranks amongst the Premiership's best. Addison's fitness will determine the progress of his career from here on but if he can stay healthy, he'll play an even bigger role in Sale's 2015-16 season than he did in 2014.
Moment of the season: Comprehensively outplaying both George North and Luther Burrell in Sale's 20-7 victory over Northampton.
Tom Arscott - A
The star of Sale's backline this season, Tom Arscott went from a bit-part, rotation player in his first season at Sale to a play-making, try-scoring extraordinaire in his second. Arscott's electric pace, clever movement and quick reactions saw him cross the whitewash 15 times in all competitions for the Sharks in 2014/15 - a mark that led the Sharks at a canter. But Arscott was not simply a poacher in the corner - so many of his most important contributions for Sale this year came with him demanding the ball in space with the sole aim of creating opportunities which he duly delivered on. Perhaps not as defensively tight as some would want, Arscott played the role Sale so desperately needed somebody to fill - that of a game-changing talent to compliment Danny Cipriani and for that, he is ranked so highly.
Moment of the season: A stunning individual try against Munster at Thurmond Park in January that saw him leave three Munster defenders in the dust.
Josh Beaumont - A+ PLAYER OF THE SEASON
Lets forget about saving the best for last. Neck and neck with Tom Arscott in my mind for player of the season, two wonderful individual performances against Newcastle and Exeter to close out the season firmly entrenched Beaumont as Sale's best player this season. Having only recovered from a career-threatening knee injury in October, 23 year-old Beaumont seized his opportunity to stake a place in the first team and make the No.8 shirt his own with the departure of James Gaskell with a stunning, MOTM performance against Wasps in the LV Cup in his very first game back from injury. From there Beaumont has not looked back compiling week after week of Man-of-the-match performances this season, taking over as lineout captain with Michael Paterson out injured, and also establishing himself as one of Sale's best ball-carriers to boot with four, delightfully barnstorming tries in all competitions. The sky really is the limit for the former Fylde man and he was the deserving recipient of his very first callup to the England international squad last week, with the expectation that he will turn out against Barbarians on Sunday.
Moment of the season: Leaving Jack Nowell for dead to score a wonderful individual effort in the corner away at Exeter.
Tom Brady - C-
Being unceremoniously handed-off by Anthony Watson thirty seconds into the season was probably the worst way for Tom Brady to start a season that also saw him unceremoniously disappear from the Sale first team for long stretches of the year. Firmly behind a combination of Tom Arscott, Will Addison and Mark Cueto on Sale's wings, when Brady did turn out for Sale he was solid, if unspectacular with four tries in 19 games and few game-changing contributions made.
Moment of the season: Selflessly allowing Mark Cueto to score a try in Cueto's last home game as a Sale Shark. A really classy move on Brady's part.
Dan Braid - B
Still the player most integral to Sale's success, captain Dan Braid's advancing age finally seem to catch up with this season as the 34 year-old struggled to put in the 80-minute performances in consecutive weeks that Sale fans have become accustomed to. Whilst Braid still exhibited the admirable leadership, turnover and tackling abilities that have seen him become a club legend in only his third season in England - Braid's effectiveness admittedly seemed to stagnate midway through the season as the number of games cascaded upon a limited Sale first team.
Moment of the season: A superb gather of an errant pass to the touchline and subsequent sprint finish to score in the corner at Kingston Park against Falcons in November.
Danny Cipriani - B+
A second consecutive season of strong performances and an absence of off-the-field incidents is enough to give Cipriani a passing grade although the game-changing bits of magic that won Sale a number of important games this season pushes his grade up even further. It shows how important Cipriani's form is to the success of the entire team that when Cipriani wasn't firing at his mercurial best, a loss for the Sharks often followed closely behind. The scything run to score and secure Sale two losing bonus against Gloucester in September, the chip and gather on his own goal-line that lead to the game winning try at Newcastle, a perfectly delayed off-load that saw Cipriani effectively place the ball into Sam Tuitupou's hands for a try against Saracens and the cross-field kick for Tom Arscott's first try against Harlequins were all personal highlights for Cipriani who single-handedly won Sale a bouquet of points in 2014/15 and without whom Sale would have struggled mightily to put digits on the scoreboard. But anonymous showings in key games against Bath, Leicester and Exeter away where Cipriani looked overawed by an aggressive defence and or tried to force the play too much as happened away at London Irish prevent 'Cips' from getting a coveted A grade. A return to the England setup this year probably makes up for that though.
Moment of the season: With rumours swirling of Cipriani leaving Sale for another English club or a possible move to France, Cipriani's elated celebration of Dan Braid's game-winning try away to Harlequins in November showed how firmly Cipriani has bought into being a part of Sale Sharks.
Will Cliff - B
The writing, unfortunately, was on the wall for Will Cliff's future at Sale Sharks when Steve Diamond opted to bring in Scottish international Chris Cuister to replace Dwayne Peel rather than entrusting the starting scrum-half role to the 27 year old Cliff before the 2014/15 season. To his credit Cliff responded with arguably one of his best seasons in a Sale shirt, impressing in limited appearances nearly every week with some excellent box-kicking and quick passing from the base of the scrum. Unfortunate again not to get more playing time with Chris Cusiter not being called up to Scotland and therefore being available for pretty much the entire season, Cliff was a consummate professional on the bench and one cannot blame him for being lured to Bristol for next season.
Moment of the season: Playing an instrumental role in Sale's historic away victory at Harlequins in one of his only two Premiership starts in 2014/15.
Vadim Cobilas - A-
Already a Sale cult hero, Vadim further cemented his legend amongst the Sharks faithful with an almost unprecedented season as Sale's only first-team Tighthead. Indeed, failed experiments that saw both Alberto de Marchi and Ross Harrison attempt to convert to the position of Tighthead from Loosehead with limited success, also saw Vadim Cobilas often start match days as the only natural Tighthead in the entire Sale squad. In a modern era that sees the top-six teams, namely the ones Sale spent most of the season competing with, often carry at least two, if not three props on both sides of the scrum in their first team, the fact that Cobilas was alone at his position and subsequently played the entire 80 minutes as a prop Seven times in 2014/15, all whilst playing an integral role in Sale's push for a top-six place is unbelievable. This herculean effort alone gives Vadeeeeem top marks even if an understandable late season dip in form soured his campaign ever so slightly. Please sign James Johnston, Dimes.
Moment of the season: We all knew this was going to be Cobilas' dreadful attempt at a drop goal away to Bath.
Mark Cueto - C+
I promise I will eventually get round to writing my tribute to Mark Cueto: Sale Sharks legend, but until that time, this will summarise my feelings of Cueto's final season in professional rugby: still had a few tries left in him, still a decent player, probably the right time to go. Retires a legend.
Moment of the season: Premiership try number ninety in his final home game in rugby. The happiness that afternoon was palpable.
Chris Cusiter - B+
Brought in to replace Dwayne Peel as Sale's starting scrum-half, Scottish international Cusiter rose to the task enormously, instantly building an exciting rapport with Danny Cipriani and cementing himself as one of Steve Diamond's best additions to the club in recent years. Although not as dangerous around the fringes as some would like, and whose preferred tempo of pace is slower than that offered by Will Cliff, Cusiter was still a massively influential and important piece in everything positive Sale did this season. Great game-management (at least in this commentator's eye), slick passing, with a nose for a break and the try-line when the opportunities presented themselves, Cusiter has made the transition from Peel an incredibly easy one.
Moment of the season: Neatly scoring in the corner from the base of a ruck against Leicester in December. A smart, heads-up play that exhibits all of the experience and awareness Cusiter has brought to the club.
Alberto de Marchi - D-
Steve Diamond's foolhardy attempt to turn the Italian national team's starting Loosehead prop into a Tighthead upon de Marchi's arrival at Sale Sharks ensured we probably never saw the best of the 29 year-old in what was to be his only season at Sale. The failure of that experiment plus a poor run of form to start the year at Loosehead as well banished de Marchi from the first team and although his sporadic appearances improved steadily throughout the year as he began to get acclimatised to the standard of the Premiership game, his status as a foreign international on a decent wage who can't play Tighthead meant it was little surprise last week when Sale announced they had mutually agreed to terminate de Marchi's contract.
Moment of the season: Impressive in the loose as a ball-carrier all season, de Marchi's galloping touchline try against Wasps in the LV Cup stands out as his best moment in a Sale shirt.
Mark Easter - C-
I was dismayed last summer when Steve Diamond opted not to dip into the transfer market and bring in a No.8 to replace the outgoing James Gaskell, instead opting to start the season with Mark Easter as the incumbent in the position. Whilst Easter must be applauded for the professional effort he displayed each week and the excellent defensive attributes and tackling he put into the Sharks first team all season, Easter was/is too lean to break tackles and not quick enough to exploit defensive gaps making him woefully inadequate to serve as an effective No.8 in the Premiership and was thankfully usurped from that role by the emergence of Josh Beaumont two months into the season. Easter instead made the rest of his appearances from then on in the much better suited role of Blindside flanker where he put together a string of effective cameo performances.
Moment of the season: Erm, he contributed to a lot of turnovers via the choke tackle I guess?
Darren Fearn - N/A
Now we enter that mysterious grouping of the Sale squad where we wonder if they're actually still at the club/ever existed at all. Brought in from Bedford Blues last summer, Darren Fearn played a grand total of four minutes for the Sale first team this season. I can't grade that.
Moment of the season: The four minutes he appeared in against Leicester Tigers in November.
Viliami Fihaki - N/A
For reasons unbeknownst to everyone except the Sale coaching brass, Viliami Fihaki went from a regular match day contributor in 2013/14 to club shop & video game duty in 2014/15 as the Tongan international mysteriously disappeared from the Sharks first team squad. I'm not sure what is more surprising - Fihaki's regular omission from the Sale squad when Sale desperately needed a ball-carrying forward at the start of the season - the main attribute Fihaki brings to the team - or the fact he actually made nine appearances for Sale this season albeit largely bit-part roles off the bench and LV Cup starts. I would not be surprised in the slightest if Fihaki doesn't return to Manchester for the 2015/16 season.
Moment of the season: N/A
James Flynn - C
A prospect for the future rather than right now, 21 year-old James Flynn made five cameo appearances of the bench for Sale in 2014/15 - two in the LV Cup, two in Sale's doomed European Champions Cup campaign and one in the Premiership. Should see more game time next season behind Eifon Lewis-Roberts and Ross Harrison.
Moment of the season: N/A
Joe Ford - D
Firmly entrenched behind Danny Cipriani in a backup role that doesn't look like it will change much in the future - Ford only made three starts for Sale all season - two of which were in the LV - with the majority of his 19 appearances coming off the bench. Although his playmaking skills looked to have improved in his second year as a Shark, a number of missed kicks and conversations dogged the end of his 2014/15 season, including two opportunities to win a key game at home against Harlequins. With no details of his contract publicly available it is unclear whether Ford will be around next season although one feels further small tweaks to his game could progress his playing ability further which could be important if Danny Cipriani is away with England to start the season.
Moment of the season: Coming off the bench to set up two tries in a near-miraculous comeback against Harlequins. If only he made those kicks..
Andy Forsyth - N/A
Another player woefully under-utilised by Steve Diamond this season, former Leicester Tiger Forsyth made only four starts in 2014/15 all of which came in the second tier competition that is the LV Cup. Seemingly third choice in the Sale pecking order at his preferred position of Outside Centre behind Johnny Leota and Mark Jennings, it is no surprise that Forsyth has opted to join Yorkshire Carnegie next season and try his hand at Championship rugby with no imminent first team chances on the horizon by staying at Sale. Lets make no bones about it - Forsyth's talent was undoubtedly wasted by Steve Diamond who refused to incorporate Forsyth's different style of play into his system and as such will probably join the infamous list of former Sharks 'who got away.'
Moment of the season: N/A
Nathan Fowles - N/A
Eight 'second-string' appearances of little note before being loaned to Edinburgh in February where he is now staying. Its a shame to lose Fowles who looks to have an exciting career ahead of him but mitigating factors took him away from the AJ Bell stadium. James Mitchell is supposed to be really good as well.
Moment of the season: N/A
Mike Haley - B
In retrospect the sole bright spot of Sale's signing of Luke McLean last summer was that the Italian international's woeful early season form (more on that to come) allowed Mike Haley the opportunity to make the No.15 shirt his own. The 20 year-old has constituted one of the finds of the season for the Sharks making an incredibly successful jump from the Sale academy into the first team since replacing McLean as starting Fullback against Munster in October, going on to keep the incumbent role for the rest of the season whilst thoroughly outplaying the seasoned international. Although his form wobbled in the season's second half, Haley's impact in the first team this year was nothing short of phenomenal - offering poised and experienced play well beyond his 20 years at a key position, a clever and aware kicking game and excellent ability under the high ball which Haley has consistently turned into dangerous counter-attacking rugby with mazing runs and elusive running. I remember remarking to my father during one of Haley's early season games that I have not been as excited watching a player (Haley) return the ball from deep since the days of Jason Robinson and if Haley is able to spend the off-season adding some bulk to a wiry frame, he'll probably have the Sale 15 shirt under wraps for the next ten years should he want it.
Moment of the season: An outstanding season debut at home to Munster, where Haley's poised positional play and creative kicking helped Sale nearly pull of a historic win. Not bad for only his 8th professional game.
Ross Harrison - B-
Although Harrison was found being switched between different sides of the scrum for much of the 31 games he appeared in in 2014/15 as Steve Diamond sought a plethora of solutions to plug the gap at Tighthead, Harrison had himself another solid season at the front of the Sale pack regardless of where he was asked to play and even earned himself an England Saxons callup for his strong form back in February. Harrison should also hopefully move into the incumbent Loosehead role next season with Eifon Lewis-Roberts beginning to creep up in years as the 22 year-old has firmly established himself as Sale's long-term future on at least one side of the scrum.
Moment of the season: Picking up Sale's only red card of the season by exchanging fisticuffs with Exeter's Alex Brown in the last game of the season. One of the few entertaining moments of that game.
Nathan Hines - B+
Although his two-year contract was cut short with the announcement of his decision to retire last month, the 12 or so months Nathan Hines spent as a Sale Sharks were some that reaped immediate and future reward for the club. For as many of the club's coaching staff will tell you, Nathan Hines was instrumental in aiding the emerging stardom of Josh Beaumont with some astute mentorship whilst also playing a pivotal role in the team's on-field fortunes. Arguably the best water boy Sale has ever seen, Hines' absence in the early season was immediately noticeable by the declining fortunes of a Sale scrum that was buoyed by his return in November. 'Wagga' also brought all the guile, experience and savviness he built a career upon, appearing 17 times as a Shark and making himself one of the first names on the Sale team sheet even at 39(!) years of age. His decision to retire and join Vern Cotter's coaching staff at Scottish Rugby was understandable albeit disappointing for Sale as Hines brought so much to the club in such a short period of time. He'll be missed next season.
Moment of the season: Catching the Saracens defence completely off-guard by leaping over a goal-line ruck to score in the European Champions Cup fixture at Allianz Park. That's experience.
Charlie Ingall - N/A
Two first team appearances and one try in 2014/15 for another one of Sale's 'twilight zone' club. Still that's an improve strike rate if I've ever seen one. Will he be back next season? No idea. Is he still at the club? No Idea.
Moment of the season: N/A
T.J. Ioane - C+
A mid-season pickup made on the recommendation of Dan Braid, Samoan international Ioane made an immediate impact to the Sale squad both on and off the field with his long dreadlocks and aggressive, devil-may-care playing style. Only turning out five times for the Sharks in 2014/15, Ioane looks to play a much more substantial role for the Sale first team next season as Steve Diamond works out how to integrate him into an already highly successful and efficient back row. Ioane plays with a reckless abandon that is a joy to watch, throwing himself into defenders and tackles reminiscent slightly of Billy Vunipola when he first emerged at Wasps but balancing that with some well-developed rucking and defensive skills that will allow him to play a much more rounded role within the Sale system. TJ is somebody I'm excited to get a longer look at next season.
Moment of the season: Gathering a loose ball in his own 22 and beating three Bath defenders to the outside with some great footwork before nearly flattening Tom Homer with ball-in-hand. More of that next season, please.
Mark Jennings - B
Undisputedly one of the most improved players in the entire Sale Sharks squad this season, the leap Mark Jennings made from his 2013/14 form to the player he was at the start of 2014/15 was hugely impressive. Now a powerful and disruptive runner often requiring multiple defenders to take him down in the tackle, Jennings has added power and strength to an exciting attacking game that made him one of the most interesting players in the entire Premiership to watch this season. Still only twenty-two, Jennings has an extremely promising future ahead of him as long as Steve Diamond realises what a talent he has on his hands and finds him the opportunities to start and prosper. Jennings is the future of Sale's midfield and some work on his defensive game and passing could see him blossom into a star.
Moment of the season: Nothing encapsulates the evolution of Jennings' game than his try against Bath in the season's opening round - with three defenders making the tackle but unable to take him down, Jennings slipped out of the bind to then power over Kyle Eastmond to touch down for Sale's first try of the season.
Marc Jones - A-
Some terrible early season accuracy from the lineout (he was really bad) marred an otherwise outstanding campaign for Marc Jones in 2014/15. As abrasive in the loose as he is powerful at the ruck and scrum, Jones was once again one of Sale's most influential and consistent players all season long. The fact he was Sale's only healthy Hooker for the first four months of the season with Tommy Taylor out injured and Shalva Mamukhasvili still learning the ropes of the English game makes his season all the more impressive. Losing him to the big bucks of Bristol will be a particularly bitter pill for Sale to swallow but it is an understandable career move for the 28 year-old who has given so much in service to the club.
Moment of the season: Missing or overthrowing his man in ten of his first 11 (!) lineouts against Harlequins in November. He really was that terrible to start the season - otherwise he'd have got an A+.
Johnny Leota - C
One half of Sale's oft-maligned, oft-criticised centreship pairing, Johnny Leota put together another solid season of service in Sale Sharks colours although a game-changing element was sorely absent for big portions of his year. By now it is obvious what Leota offers this Sale team; like his team-mate Sam Tuitupou, Leota is a hard-running, big-hitting pillar in the midfield that when used correctly can win you valuable games and points. However Leota suffered from more than his share of inconsistency this season, one week playing lights out, the next being largely a passenger in the Sale team without creating much with ball-in-hand and missing tackles. Overall it was a pretty much average season for Leota who could well see his playing time dip next year as Sale look to give Mark Jennings more first team game time.
Moment of the season: A powerful, jinking run to put Sale 23-7 up against Munster in the ECC's opening round is the perfect example of the 'good' of Leota's game.
Eifon Lewis-Roberts - C
It was a peculiar season for Eifon Lewis-Roberts, at his best he was dominant, at his worst.. he was the most penalised Loosehead in the Premiership. Still somewhat effective even at 34 years old, Lewis-Roberts is still an integral component to the Sale scrum and will be again next season.
Moment of the season: I'm open to suggestions?
Magnus Lund - B
2014/15 was a welcome homecoming for Magnus Lund who returned to the club following a six-year spell in France with Biarritz. Adding much needed depth to the Sale pack and back row, Lund was an effective option all across the pitch throughout the season - a lineout option, a strong ball-carrier and nuisance at the breakdown. It shows how strong Lund's performances were this season that both Harlequins and Leicester Tigers made moves to recruit him for next season before 'Maggie' recommitted to his boyhood club for another two seasons.
Moment of the season: A huge tackle on Wasps' Ashley Johnson at the AJ Bell that saw him literally lift the South African and dump him unceremoniously to the ground.
Phil MacKenzie - N/A
Three appearances, no tries, no news on a contract extension. Pretty much sums it up.
Moment of the season: A brilliant run against Wasps in the LV Cup that saw MacKenzie slice the defence open with blistering pace before tripping over his own feet preventing a try being scored.
Nick Macleod - C+
Solid in backup duty behind Danny Cipriani and in spot starts in the LV, Macleod also put together an impressive performance in his only Premiership start of the season, guiding Sale to a conformable 52-12 away win over London Welsh. A good squad player to have around.
Moment of the season: A delightful stutter step inside the London Irish defence to open the space for Andy Forsyth to score Sale's fifth try in a 36-8 victory.
Shalva Mamukashvili - D
Brought in as emergency cover after injuries to Tommy Taylor and Marc Jones before the season, Mamukhasvili struggled to adapt to the standard of Premiership rugby with a truly horrendous showing against Gloucester away serving as his introduction to the English game. By the time he acclimatised, Taylor and Jones were back to full fitness and Mamukashvili's services were not particularly necessary anymore. A bad knee injury suffered in a Georgian friendly in February meant little was seen of the Georgian Hooker in the season's second half.
Moment of the season: N/A
Luke McLean - F
Without a doubt, the biggest bust and/or disappointment of the season, the arrival of Luke McLean was considered the jewel in the crown of Sale's summer signings with the Italian international being seen as a perfect replacement for the departing Rob Miller. Despite his strong showings for Italy in Autumn and during the Six Nations, McLean was nothing short of a disaster for Sale - terrible competing in the air for the ball, a sieve of missed tackles defensively, anonymous in attack and with ball-in-hand all of which were compounded by the plethora of unforced errors McLean made including multiple kicks gone dead and knock-ons under no pressure. McLean lost his place as starting Fullback in the first team to Mike Haley in October and never came remotely close to reclaiming it. Although I was confident a second season and reevaluation of McLean's usage within the Sale gameplan would bring better results, McLean agreed to have his contract terminated and is returning to Italy with Treviso next season. Here's hoping the money freed from McLean's departure will go towards someone who can make a better impact in 2015/16.
Moment of the season: Sprinting away from a trailing Ben Morgan to finish a length of the field try at Kingsholm in September.
Jonathan Mills - A-
A drastically underrated member of the Sharks squad, the former London Welsh captain has proven to be one of Steve Diamond's finest acquisitions as Sale coach, plucking Mills following Welsh's relegation in 2013. Although never one to have his names in the headlines - the small carries, the tackles, his work in the rolling maul and many other aspects of Mills' 'grafting' playing style are all fundamental to the team style Sale thrive upon and Mills' contributions are integral to providing a platform for the more dynamic attacking players in the Sharks team to exploit. He did all that and more for Sale in 2014/15, making 29 appearances in all competitions for the Sharks this year and being one of Sale's most consistent performers, week-in, week-out.
Moment of the season:
Andrei Ostrikov - C
Although largely a rotation option for much of the season, Ostrikov was still used situationally to add much needed strength and 'grunt' to the Sale pack when up against much larger and heavier packs in 2014/15. He should see much more extensive usage next season however with both Michael Paterson and Nathan Hines departing the North-West.
Moment of the season: A galloping run that sliced the Saracens defence open for the simplest of touchdowns in a narrow defeat against Saracens in Europe in December.
Michael Paterson - B-
Nearly five months out with a knee ligament injury suffered against Harlequins in November comprehensively derailed Michael Paterson's second season as a Sale Shark. Until that point, Paterson had continued the strong run of form that made him such a favourite in his inaugural season in Manchester - a strong ball-carrier, powerful in the air and a tackling machine. Paterson's injury combined with his announced departure for Northampton meant Paterson's best days in a Sale shirt came last season rather than this.
Moment of the season: Probably his celebration of the try enshrined in the SharkTankRugby header page.
Ciaran Parker - C+
Fast-tracked into the Sale first team probably a year or so than previously anticipated, 19 year-old Parker had a string of cameo appearances in relief of Vadim Cobilas to end the season as Diamond abandoned the conversion of Ross Harrison to Tighthead and Vadim Cobilas' run of 80-minute games naturally came to an end. Parker acquainted himself well in those games, providing a solid scrummaging option at Tighthead and looking comfortable playing in the loose. Parker will no doubt get more first team gametime next season even if (hopefully) Diamond drafts in another senior Tighthead Prop to backup Cobilas.
Moment of the season: Comprehensively outmanoeuvring Eric Fry in his first scrum after coming on versus Newcastle in May, winning Sale a valuable penalty.
David Seymour: B+
Now one of the longest-tenured members of the Sharks squad in his 6th season in Manchester, vice-captain David Seymour continued his integral role as a key combative force within the Sale pack both as a starter and off the bench in 2014/15. Seymour's form was buoyed this season by the re-signing of Magnus Lund whose presence and versatility allowed Seymour extended rest which allowed him to emerge as a game-changer in his rotational spots. Retaining his dangerously effective breakdown partnership with Dan Braid when starting, Seymour was also doubly effective as a deceptively quick ball-carrier and leadership figure.
Moment of the season: Seymour's excellent chase and collection of Tom Arscott's kick through the Falcons defence showcased how, even at 31, Seymour retains an excellent amount of pace and emerged as a game-changer off the bench for Sale this season.
Tommy Taylor - C
A crucial ligement injury suffered in his first appearance for England against Barbarians this time last year, ruined the brunt of Tommy Taylor's season with the 23 year old not making his first appearance in 2014/15 until late January. With much of Taylor's season coming as part of his rehabilitative program after a nearly career-ending injury, Taylor was not at full fitness until late in the season with obvious effects on the Hooker's mobility and performances. However Taylor rebounded nicely upon his return and his end of year form bodes well for the starting hooker role Taylor will be required to fill with Marc Jones' leaving for Bristol in the summer. Taylor was rewarded for his return from injury with another callus to England's wider training squad and will once again feature for England against Barbarians this weekend.
Moment of the season: His pair of well-taken tries helped Sale cruise to an easy victory over London Welsh in February.
Sam Tuitupou - B-
Relatively unchallenged for the starting Inside Centre position all season long, Sam Tuitupou's 2014-15 season was not his most impressive as a member of Sale Sharks, but he once again put in a string of important performances and was an invaluable member of Sale's drive for a top-six place. Huge hits, powerful running and strong defence are all hallmarks of Tuitupou's game and all were found in abundance in 2014/15, however conversely, Tutitupou was found wanting in a number of key fixtures where his somewhat one-dimensional was neutralised.
Moment of the season: An opportunistic carry from the base of a touchline ruck allowed Tutitupou to run in unopposed to score an important try in Sale's near-win over Leicester at the AJ Bell in December.
I would be disappointed if you agreed with all the gradings listed in this article so get involved either on Twitter @SharkTankRugby, on the supporter's Facebook group or fan's forum. Don't forget to follow @SharkTankRugby on twitter for more independent news, analysis and opinions.
A second Sale signing in as many days was announced first thing Thursday morning with the Sharks offering official confirmation that Kiwi Lock Bryn Evans is joining the club on a two-year deal from Biarritz.
Evans, who appeared twice for the All Blacks in 2009 has also had stints with the Auckland Blues, the Hurricanes of Super Rugby and London Irish and if Steve Diamond's comments in the accompanying MEN article are anything to put stock in, the 6ft 5' Lock is viewed by the Sale coaching brass as a direct replacement for the Northampton-bound Michael Paterson.
Evans, weighing in at 18st 2lbs, is actually closer in stature to another departing Sale second row in Nathan Hines and should fill something of a hybrid role between what Hines and Paterson respectively brought to the Sharks' squad.
Whilst Evans is, in my opinion, another 'safe' addition to the Sharks first team, its hard not to be slightly underwhelmed, especially with both Hines and Paterson leaving the North-West at the same time.
Evans' main strength is his mobility around the park with a nice bit of pace as a ball-carrier in the wider channels and smart off-loading ability. Evans is also an efficient tackler that will fit well within Sale's defensive structure and an excellent lineout option that will combine well with Josh Beaumont. Evans can also cover blind-side Flanker which should give Sale much needed versatility with TJ Ioane and Beaumont being able to shift between the second and back rows as needed.
Its not hard to see why Diamond targeted Evans considering he should replicate the most important aspects of both Nathan Hines and Michael Paterson's respective skill sets they demonstrated at the AJ Bell. Evans at 30 years old is also another experienced head that should aid the development of Sale youngsters such as George Nott.
However Evans is also considered something of a lightweight option in the second row which is where Hines' scrummaging ability could be sorely missed. Sale's pack fluctuated in effectiveness throughout the season and it is hard to see whether Evans will make much of an impact in turning the Sharks' fortunes around in that area.
Additionally Evans, with two All-Black caps to his name and his last season being spent in the Pro D2 in France is hardly an 'all-star international' name Steve Diamond alluded to when Danny Cipriani re-signed with promises of significant investment. Whilst Diamond has shown in the past a shrewd effectiveness in the market for second and back row players in particular and Evans in my mind seems a smart investment, he's not a signing that suggests Sale are going to rebound and be up and amongst the play-off places again. There are still clear deficiencies in the Sale squad and whilst Evans fills one (and maybe two) holes in the Sale team, the Sharks' 2014-15 first team is still a long way from being completed.
Overall Bryn Evans reminds me a lot of Michael Paterson when the latter first joined Sale and with he proving to be such a monumental success as a Shark, I'm happy to trust Diamond that he's made another astute addition. However Evans is not Brodie Retallick and Sale are still a handful of players away before they can consider themselves shoe-ins for the top-six again in 2015/16.
What do you make of the Bryn Evans signing? A delightfully low-key addition or an underwhelming recruit that signals Sale's weakened hold within the market? Tweet and follow @SharkTankRugby for further opinions and analysis.
And then there was two.
Earlier today Sale Sharks officially announced the signing of ex-Bath and Munster and former Irish international scrum-half Peter Stringer on a one-year deal. Stringer joins a returning Neil Briggs as the newest members of Sale's playing squad as the Sharks look to retool their squad ahead of next season.
Stringer at age 37, has represented his native Ireland 98 times and has enjoyed a storied career with Munster, Saracens, Newcastle and Bath, the latter of whom he has made 18 appearances for as the West Country club secured a play-off berth.
With both Will Cliff and Nathan Fowles departing the Sharks for pastures new this summer, there was an obvious void in the Sale squad at replacement scrum-half that likely comes a year early for 20 year-old James Mitchell.
Stringer then, with his contract at Bath now being renewed, was an obvious fit and one in my mind is a very astute pickup for Sale.
Bath supporters have not been shy in expressing their admiration for the departing scrum-half and Stringer's prominent role in helping Bath finish the Premiership season in 2nd place.
Stringer, even at age 37, is renowned as one of the fittest players in the entire Premiership and his characteristically quick passing and style of game-management has remained at the sharpest of levels even as he enters his 18th professional season. There should be no significant drop-off next year between incumbent starter Chris Cusiter and Stringer and Stringer's linkup play with Cipriani could prove decisive as Sale look to close out more games victorious in 2015/16.
Overall Stringer fills an important gap within the Sharks first team ahead of next season and he should also offer valuable experience to James Mitchell when the latter steps up to replace Stringer in future seasons.
Also included in the Stringer press release was confirmation that Sale and Loosehead Prop Alberto Di Marchi have mutually agreed to terminate the latter's contract.
Di Marchi, despite being an Italian International, failed to make a substantial impact in his only season with the Sharks mainly due to Steve Diamond's insistence on attempting to convert him to Tighthead. With Eifon Lewis-Roberts, Ross Harrison and James Flynn already available at Loosehead, terminating Di Marchi's contract should allow valuable funds to be redistributed towards finding another Tighthead prop to back up Cobilas which is probably in the best interests for all parties. Di Marchi, I am told, is likely heading back to Treviso.
As I stated in the preview of Saturday's game, a repeat of last year's astounding 55-12 victory for Sale over Exeter Chiefs was always unlikely as Sale finished their 2014/15 season with a trip to Sandy Park. However it was a total reversal of fortunes on a beautiful Cornish afternoon as Sale bade farewell to Mark Cueto & co. with a disappointing 44-16 loss to end their Premiership campaign. A reckless high tackle from Johnny Leota that earned him a 10 minute reprieve in the sin-bin was to be the turning point with Sale capitulating totally in the second half as Chiefs ran in twenty-two unanswered points and five tries to give them a fully deserved win.
So that's the season. I could say more about what went wrong for Sale on Saturday but I fear I'll depress myself too much ahead of summer. Looking back, 7th as a final standings position is probably about right for a small, but determined Sale Sharks team that won exactly half and lost exactly half of their games this season. But it is hard not to look back at key results throughout the year (Leicester @ home, Irish away, Quins @ home, Wasps away) and not think what could have been. The rumour mill says that Sale should finally be announcing two new arrivals sometime next week and their arrival plus the emergence of some talented youngsters this season is a firm basis for optimism as Sale build for next season. That and the fact Will Addison will probably be healthy again. Sale's return to action comes with the start of the 2015/16 season that begins next October after a little thing called the Rugby World Cup.
Stay tuned as there is still lots to come on SharkTankRugby over the next few weeks as although the season is over for the players, it is not over for the blogosphere. My university exams take priority at the moment but keep an eye out for my take on the Premiership Team of the Season, a Sale Sharks Team of the Season, a piece on Mark Cueto's career and individual player ratings of the Sale squad over the next month or so.
Sale will finish their 2014/15 season with a trip to Sandy Park tomorrow as part of #SuperSaturday (lame Premiership Rugby - this isn't football) hoping to replicate their surprise 55-12 win over Chiefs when they last visited Exeter in April 2014. Whilst a repeat of that result is highly unlikely given Exeter's excellent form this year and their play-off aspirations which coincidentally hang in the balance pending their result against the Sharks, the 2014/15 season has been anything but predictable for Sale and with a near-full strength squad announced, this is a game that could go either way. For the last time this season, here are three things to look out for when Exeter and Sale take the field:
Tom Arscott Matching Up Against Jack Nowell
One of two key positional matchups I am highlighting for consideration as key for Saturday's game is that between Tom Arscott who retains his place in the Sale starting lineup at fullback for a second consecutive week and Jack Nowell who's oft-praised versatilely sees Rob Baxter employing him at the same position. Arscott proved his naysayers (i.e. me) wrong last week with an outstanding all-round performance against Newcastle in his first start at fullback since the end of the 2013/14 season and he will have to replicate that lightnining-in-a-bottle performance against the mercurial talents of England international Nowell. Despite adding the role of Outside Centre to his already considerable talents this season, Nowell remains one of the premier fullbacks in England with a great turn of pace, ability in the air and an eye for a defensive gap and how he and Arscott match up against each other could be critical to the outcome of the game, especially if the weather doesn't hold and it becomes something of a kicking contest.
Josh Beaumont vs. Thomas Waldrom
Two of the form No.8s in the Premiership this season, the second crucial battle on Saturday afternoon will come down to Josh Beaumont and Thomas Waldrom. Waldrom has been in astronomical form this season with a series of performances in his inaugural season in Devon pushing him back into England consideration, and a try on Saturday would see him eclipse Neil Back's single-season Premiership record of 16 tries for a forward. Although not as prolific as Waldrom in front of the try-line this season, Beaumont has been in equally impressive form for Sale, taking over as lineout captain in Michael Paterson's injury-enforced absence and putting in a series of Man-of-the-Match performances including last week against Newcastle where his line breaks helped set up two of Sale's five tries. As with Arscott/Nowell, whoever of the two backrowers can stamp their authority across the game could dictate who emerges victorious on Saturday.
Will Sale have an impact on the play-off race?
Whilst Sale's fleeting play-off hopes were dashed months ago, Sale still have a chance to play spoiler in this year's race for the play-offs. Going into #SuperSaturday (....) Leicester, Exeter and Saracens sit on 64, 63 and 63 points respectively with the final two play-off positions up for grabs. With all games in the season's final round being played simultaneously, whilst Exeter and Sale meet at Sandy Park, Leicester face a weakened Northampton side already assured of a spot in the 'final four' and Saracens are away to relegated London Welsh. With conventional wisdom suggesting Tigers and Sarries will pick up wins in their games, Sale have a huge chance to hinder their Saturday opponents' chances of making it into the play-offs by securing another surprise away victory.
Prediction: Exeter Chiefs 32 - 27 Sale Sharks
Exeter have it all to play for Saturday and will look to secure a big victory to guarantee their inclusion in this season's play-offs. Sale still have slim hopes of making the top-six should other results go their way and they too will come out all guns blazing if only to send off Mark Cueto, Nathan Hines and others on a high. However Exeter's free-flowing game is much better suited for Saturday's predicted sunny forecast and their talented backline and back row should outshine Sale's especially with Will Addison, TJ Ioane and Magnus Lund unavailable. It will be close but the Chiefs should prevail.
A delightfully scintillating game of end-to-end attacking rugby saw Sale record a bonus-point victory over Northern rivals Newcastle Falcons in club legend Mark Cueto's, amongst others, last home game for the club. Five tries from Chris Cusiter, Mark Cueto, Sam Tuitupou, David Seymour and T.J. Ioane alongside Leicester Tigers' narrow victory over Wasps earlier today ensured Sale's final game of the season next weekend against Exeter Chiefs will not be a dead rubber as the Sharks still hold a slim chance of making the top-six and qualifying for the Champions Cup.
Sale finish their 2014/15 season with a trip to Exeter Chiefs where they ran in 52 points last season. Whilst a repeat result is as unlikely as Wasps failing to get at least a bonus point away to Irish, there is still a tiny, minute chance Sale could still make it into next year's Champions Cup. Stranger things have happened.
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Sale Sharks will play their last home game of the 2014/15 season on Saturday with relatively little to play for following Gloucester's Challenge Cup victory all but ending any faint hopes Sale held of reaching the European Champions Cup by any avenue. Saturday also sees Mark Cueto, Michael Paterson, Will Cliff and Nathan Hines play their final game in a Sale shirt in front of the home fans and Newcastle attempt to reverse a four-month losing streak in the Premiership with Falcons' last win in the league coming back in January over London Welsh. Here's three things to watch out for for the last time this season at the AJ Bell.
Mark Cueto's Final Home Game
The main narrative of Saturday's game is, of course, that it will be the last time Sale club legend Mark Cueto plays in a Sharks shirt in front of his home fans. A one-club man his entire career and a a relic of a by-gone era in professional rugby union, much has, and will, be written about Mark Cueto as he says farewell to the only club he has ever known. Indeed look out to my very own ode to Mark Cueto later this week. For now however, Saturday will be a celebration of a brilliant and memorable career for the Premiership's all-time leading try scorer who starts on the left wing for the final time at the AJ Bell stadium. A huge send-off is expected.
Tom Arscott at Fullback?
The big surprise of Friday afternoon's team selection is that Mike Haley drops out of the starting lineup to the bench with Tom Arscott starting at fullback. Whilst I advocated in recent weeks for giving Haley a more limited role off the bench as a way of resting him and sharpening his focus on the pitch, I am very surprised that Diamond opted to select Arscott, a much better option on the wing than at fullback as his first two years at Sale have proved, to replace the former Sale Jet. In hindsight, selecting Arscott to start over the notoriously absent Luke McLean is a move to capitalise on the EQP quota that brings much needed additional revenue into the club. However given Arscott's mistake-ridden form at fullback last season I am surprised that Diamond opted to bench Haley and play Arscott there instead of incorporating an additional EQP-qualified player somewhere else in the squad - Magnus Lund instead of T.J. Ioane for example. Regardless, how Arscott performs in the 15 shirt could have a huge impact on the game so keep a spotlight on him.
Strong, Not Overly EQP Squad
A pleasant surprise given Sale's position within the Aviva Premiership and their previous track record for selecting EQP-laden matchday squads as the season nears its end to hit the aforementioned quota, Sale's team selection for Newcastle on Saturday is a very strong one. Whilst still incorporating a number of academy prospects and graduates (Ciaran Parker for example) to 'bolst' the English numbers, Sale have gone for a team largely made up of first team regulars sending out a clear message to the fans and opposition that this game is not a write-off by any stretch. Dan Braid, Danny Cipriani, Chris Cusiter, Vadim Cobilas, Sam Tuitupou and Johnny Leota all start against a similarly strong Falcons side.
Prediction: Sale Sharks 36 - 24 Newcastle Falcons
A near full-strength Sale side, with a similarly well-placed Falcons side should make this an entertaining game even with little to play for. On their home ground and with genuine game-changers on their bench, Sale should have enough to comfortably beat a Falcons team that has seriously treated water since the new year. Don't expect a repeat of the 15-14 victory Newcastle recorded in this fixture last season but do expect Sinoti Sinoti to score at least one mesmerising try.
Last Monday night, the Sale Sharks Supporters Club, as part of their annual End of Season Awards Celebration, voted Danny Cipriani as Sale's 'Player of the Season' for 2014/15.
Cipriani, for sure, has had an impressive season for Sale in his third year in Manchester. No longer the defensive sieve he was in his inaugural season in the North-West, Cipriani has developed his approach to become one of the best tacklers and defensively astute members of the Sale squad to augment the astonishing creative attacking skills that Cipriani has built his career on. Game-changing pieces of skill such as the chip-and-chase leading to the winning try at Kingston Park against Newcastle or the off-load to Sam Tuitupou to secure victory over Saracens back in February are just two, of many, examples of the pivotal role Cipriani has played in all of the positive aspects of Sale's 2014-15 season.
However to decree Sale's sole English international as the Sharks' 'Player of the Season', in my opinion, is the wrong decision. In this writer's opinion that honour should go to Tom Arscott.
Before I get lambasted for being needlessly controversial with my selection of Arscott over Cipriani and other logical nominees from Sale's first team, Dan Braid and Josh Beaumont who have both been in fine form this season, I will explain my decision.
Without getting into the fiercely-contested debate regarding Sale Sharks's 'real' position within the modern day Premiership, Sale, are objectively, a team with genuine top-six aspirations even if they will probably fail to meet them this season.
However for a team ostensibly competing for automatic European qualification places year-in year-out, Sale are a team objectively lacking the star quality of their rival Premiership competitors.
Sale are a team that thrives off a 'team' ethos - a collection of players that with a strictly implemented gameplan combine to form a sum greater than their individual parts. It is this that has allowed Sale to finish in the Premiership top-six twice in the last three seasons and come close to a similar accomplishment this year. But even with the team-orientated nature of professional Rugby Union, stars with the ability to change a game in a perilous position are sorely needed.
Sale already have one of the best in the rugby world in that game-changing category in Danny Cipriani. But as teams such as Northampton, Bath and Wasps whose success this season with their multitude of international players have shown this season, one player cannot always do it alone - the top squads have multiple game-winning players.
And whilst Cipriani has been undoubtedly impressive this season with his domestic form earning him a well-deserved recall to the England international team, Cipriani has been guilty, especially against the elite Premiership teams this season, of putting in anonymous performances from the fly-half position where he has struggled to engage his fellow backs in attack, often by trying overly ambitious passes and cross-field kicks that needlessly gives possession away. Cipriani's decision-making has also come into question at times this season, sometimes making curious choices with penalties to exploit, poorly missing positional kicks (Quins last weekend comes to mind) and attempting to force play that leads to mistakes (the debacle of the Irish try from the missed penalty is the most striking example of this).
With the cash-strapped nature of the Sale Sharks organisation however, Sale are not in the financial position to attract the game-changing calibre of player upon the open market that the Premiership top four or five possess in plurality. Instead Sale must look and find these types of players in a more unorthodox fashion.
Enter Tom Arscott; the 27 year-old winger in his second season with Sale who joined from a relegated London Welsh in 2013.
Even with the aforementioned Cipriani considered, Tom Arscott has been, unquestionably, Sale's most dangerous attacking player this season. Playing with a unrivalled sense of freedom following a positional switch from fullback to wing with the arrival of Luke McLean (and subsequent emergence of Mike Haley), Arscott has been simply electric with ball-in-hand this season in his new role within the Sale system. Dangerously quick (he's the quickest member of the Sale first team squad by far), Arscott has demonstrated a greatly improved sense of attacking vision that has allowed him to identify and exploits gaps within opposition defences to the tune of 15(!) tries in 23 appearances for Sale Sharks this season; the best try-to-appearance ratio since Mark Cueto scored 18 in 25 appearances during the 2004-05 season. A perfect example of Arscott's liberating style of attacking play this season can be found here (skip to 00:50) in a match from early 2015 away to Munster.
Indicative of the ability he has shown this year, in this instance Arscott receives the ball in space, spots the gap in the Munster defence, hits the gap whilst selling the dummy pass and then uses an additional burst of pace to round the Munster fullback to score without receiving a tackle.
For a team that so desperately lacks players who can create offensive individually outside of Danny Cipriani in the number 10 role, Arscott's emergence has been a God-send. Sale do not lack for defensively aware players who can win a turnover in the mold of a Dan Braid, indeed Sale regularly employ three of them in their matchday squads with David Seymour and Magnus Lund in addition to Braid. And whilst Josh Beaumont has been a ball-carrying breath of fresh air amongst Sale's forwards, Beaumont's impact as a game-changer or defence exploiter pales in comparison to that of Arscott.
One need look only as far back as last Saturday to see the unique impact Arscott has on Sale's performance. Trailing 3-25 on 49 minutes after a miserable first half performance that saw Sale fail to make a single clean break, Arscott, with his first carry of the game took a beautifully weighted kick from Cipriani in the Quins' 22, completely sold the Harlequins fullback on a dummy pass then raced away from a covering defender to score.
Arscott's second carry of the game? Arscott fielded the restart, broke a first tackle, span away from a second then raced out into the open field. Admittedly Sale were unable to score from the passage of play, but Arscott's ability to break the play out into the open field was evident immediately; Arscott would score his second try of the game 10 minutes later. Arscott was the catalyst for a Sale comeback that very nearly netted them an impossible come-from-behind win in the race for a European Champions Cup place.
One can point to Arscott's perceived defensive weaknesses as a detriment to his potential status as Sale's Player of the Season; however aside from a missed tackle on Alex Lewington that saw the London Irish winger race away for the game-winning try (which also saw Mike Haley miss the covering tackle), this has largely been a non-issue for Arscott this season. Whilst perhaps not as defensively responsible as fellow winger Will Addison (who ranks as one of the best in the Premiership), Arscott's pace allows him to cover well in the open field and his defence has seen massive improvements since switching from fullback to wing. Individual mistakes can be highlighted for all those widely considered to have been Sale's most instrumental players this season so to discount Arscott for a poor missed tackle against Irish would be foolhardy. Players such as Cipriani and Braid, rightly or wrongly, have been given a far longer leash for their individual mistakes by both Sale fans and coaching staff this year and clemency must be afforded to Arscott when his attacking contributions are weighted.
Overall, the argument that Arscott deserves to be seen as Sale's player of the season can be divided into three main reasons. The first is the game-changing ability he has shown this year on the wing in attack that sees Arscott lead Sale Sharks in clean breaks, defenders beaten and tries scored which has massively complimented the groundwork and the platform laid down by the Sharks team, especially by Cipriani, Braid and Beaumont. Secondly, is the consistency Arscott has shown as Sale's most dangerous player this year from the first round of the season and four tries within the first three weeks of fixtures, right through to the end of the year where he has, at times, single-handedly attempted to resurrect Sale's hopes of qualifying for an automatic place in Europe's top club competition. Finally, we must consider the improvements Arscott has made from last season to this, going from the often-maligned, error-prone fullback, to the electrifying wing who is one of the first names on the team sheet week-in, week-out.
Who do you perceive to be Sale's player of the season? Arscott, Cipriani, Braid, Beaumont, Cobilas or Shalva Mamukashvili? Tweet and follow @SharkTankRugby on Twitter for more independent analysis and opinions.