Last season Sale Sharks were blessed with not one, but two of their long-heralded prospects breaking through into the first team and making a substantial impact on the Premiership. I should not have to tell anyone that those players were Josh Beaumont and Mike Haley both of whom served as two of Sale's brightest spots in an up-and-down 2014-15 campaign. Whilst every season does not always allow the circumstances to align perfectly to allow players such as Messers Beaumont and Haley to make the breakthrough impact we saw from both last season, Sale's exciting pipeline of young, English talent gives the Sharks a plethora of Academy players that could, if given the opportunity, make a similar impact for Sale in 2015-16 that the likes of Beaumont, (Tommy) Taylor, (Ross) Harrison, (Will) Addison and Haley have all made over the last few years. Here I identify a few of Sale's young stalwarts who could forge their name this season.
Although the starting Hooker position is by all indications, Tommy Taylor’s to lose, Cameron Neild could still play an important role for Sale this season. Although the 20 year old’s path is blocked by Taylor and new (re)-signing Neil Briggs, Briggs has struggled to hold a down a place in the Premiership since returning from France in 2012, bouncing around between London Welsh and Leicester Tigers without making much of an impact. Should Briggs struggle to recover the form that made him such a fan-favourite in his first stint at Sale, the former England U20 representative Neild should be able to take full advantage and insert himself into the matchday twenty-three having already been indoctrinated into the Sale first team with 12 appearances last season. Also worth noting is Neild’s ability to play Flanker which could garner him more opportunities to represent the first team. As Mike Haley showed last season, a struggling veteran can provide the platform for a young prospect to force his way into the first team and Neild could find himself tasked with significant first team minutes as soon as this season.
With Sale’s worrying lack of depth beyond Vadim Cobilas at Tighthead Prop still unresolved heading into next season, although admittedly it does seem to be No.1 on Steve Diamond’s agenda for improvements, Ciaran Parker could continue his fast-tracked progress into the Sharks first team in 2015-16. Although still only 19, Parker already seems well-adapted to life in the Premiership having made a number of strong cameo appearances off the bench down the stretch of Sale’s campaign last season. Whilst not an ideal scenario, should Parker be forced into more first team action this season, his small sample size of impressive performances suggest he should be able to push on and entrench himself as a suitable Premiership front row option for Sale across 20+ appearances over a season. As with Josh Beuamont and Mike Haley last season, the larger gaps in the Sharks’ squad such as at Tighthead should provide the best opportunities for Sale’s younger talent to push through into the first team, and Parker’s ability to cover the right side of the scrum gives him a desirable ability that could make him an extremely valuable asset for Sale this season.
Perhaps Sale’s next breakout star doesn’t have to have come from the academy. Sale’s sole mid-season signing in 2014-15, Samoan international Ioane joined the club in January from Otago in New Zealand but managed only 5 appearances in a Sale shirt due to a month’s injury layoff. Ioane made an instant impact in the matches did feature in however, catching the eye as an exciting ball-carrier playing with a refreshing devil-may-care attitude to the physical toll his carrying took on his body. Blessed with deceptive speed and the previously mentioned smash-mouth running style, Ioane also impressed in England as an energetic tackler with the versatility to cover anywhere across the Backrow and as another option at the back of Sale’s dangerous rolling maul; coincidentally how he recorded his first try for the Sharks. Ioane’s credentials as a breakout candidate however have been strengthened by his form over the summer. Ioane has won a number of accolades in the past week for his performances for Samoa in this year’s Pacific Nations Cup with eye-catching displays against the USA and Fiji. Ioane’s strong international form bodes well for his prospects in his first full Premiership season, as with his ability to play both Flanker positions in addition to Number 8, Ioane should find a key fixture myself in the Sale matchday squad every week especially if Sale are unable to strengthen their options in the Second Row and therefore require somebody able to cover Josh Beaumont at No.8 should Beaumont be required to move to Lock partway through a game. Whether playing as a Number 8 able to break the defensive line or as Flanker where his defensive and breakdown ability should shine through, Ioane could become a vital component of the Sale first team this season.
One of the main reasons Sale were comfortable losing both Will Cliff and Nathan Fowles at scrum-half in the same summer was the presence of James Mitchell knocking on the door of the first team. Another England U20 representative having featured in this summer’s Junior World Championship, Mitchell is so highly rated due to his already well-developed kicking and offensive passing ability from the base of the scrum and ruck. Although still far off a finished product, Mitchell’s fast-paced and energetic style of game-management should work well in tandem with Danny Cipriani and Joe Ford in creating attacking opportunities for Sale even if his ability to threaten the edges isn’t quite as developed as desirable. Chris Cusiter’s strong showings last season as the incumbent scrum-half and Peter Stringer’s seemingly inability to age may limit Mitchell’s showings for the first team this season but Mitchell is capable of being a fixture for Sale right now if required and could thrive if given an extended run on matchdays.
One player who could stand to benefit the most from Paul Deacon’s appointment as Sale’s new Attacking coach is fly-half/inside centre Sam James who very much fits the mold of a Rugby League coach’s player. Now 21 years old and having made a handful of appearances for Sale since 2013, Sam James should finally get an extended opportunity to feature for Sale this season as the Sharks looks to bring through alternative options for their midfield. Standing 6ft 5’ with great hands and ability to kick, James’ game is very reminiscent of a Rugby League Five-eigth and he stands to learn a lot from Paul Deacon who could speed up James’ integration at 12 alongside Danny Cipriani depending on the scenario. Whether he supplants Sam Tuitupou as Sale’s go to inside centre is doubtful but James could certainly get a chance to impress in 2015-16 and if he can form some chemistry with Chris Cusiter and Cipriani, James could very quickly become the secondary creative option in the Sale backline the Sharks hoped Luke McLean could be last season.
My personal pick to be Sale's breakout star of their 2015-16 campaign, Jennings holds two key advantages over the other players mentioned on this list. First, is his experience. Having already made appearances for the Sale first team over the last three seasons, Jennings is by far the elder statesman of this group and most deeply integrated in Sale’s playing style having already cut his teeth at both Premiership and European level, improving consistently year upon year since his debut in. At 22, Jennings is now ready, both physically and mentally to step into a full-time role for Sale and should probably make around 25 appearances for the Sharks this season especially as he will be tasked with filling the void left Johnny Leota at Outside Centre to start the season with the latter away with Samoa at the RWC. The other advantage comes with his position; unlike many of the other players already mentioned who have their paths to the first team blocked by two or three experienced veterans, Jennings only has Sam Tuiutpou or Johnny Leota ahead of him in the Sale pecking order (depending on what position you see him as a better fit), both of whom advancing in age, will need to be rotated more this coming season to retain their (undisputed) effectiveness. Realistically Jennings showed enough improvement as a relentlessly physical ball-carrier at the start of last season to have been a candidate to ‘breakout’ last season, unfortunately Tuitupou and Leota’s return from injury significantly limited Jennings’ further opportunities to stake his place in the first team. This season, for the aforementioned reasons plus the potential for Jennings to cover Wing with his experience at the position from his days representing England U20s, Jennings should see significantly increased game time for the Sale first team and with continued improvement in his defensive discipline and game-management, Jennings should cement his place in the Sale midfield long term in 2015-16.
2015-16 Season Preview Part Two; Sale's Core Of Young English Talent The Focus In A Transitional Year
In the first part of the SharkTankRugby 2015-16 Season Preview released on Tuesday, I covered the events of last season for Sale Sharks. To bring everyone up to date in the quickest fashion; Sale's 2014-15 season ended disappointingly but their final position in the Premiership table, 7th, was an appropriate spot. With that in mind, it is now time to look ahead to the upcoming 2015-16 season and preview what a new year of domestic and European competition has in store for Sale Sharks.
Sale finishing last season's Premiership competition in 7th place, only missing out on a shot at a Champions Cup play-off spot due to Gloucester (who finished 9th) lifting the Challenge Cup trophy, as I said before, was an appropriate finish to the season for the Sharks. A small, but determined squad, with its unique blend of experience and youthful invigoration was let down by its lack of rotational talent and genuine star quality outside of the talismanic Danny Cipriani and Josh Beaumont.
Had everything remained in place for Sale and English rugby since the end of the season, everything would be in pretty good shape for the Sharks and their chances of mounting another assault at the Premiership top-six and a Champions Cup spot; a reasonable target for a small rugby club with its ambitions checked by its shallow pockets.
But the cards in the Rugby Union deck have undergone their annual shuffling and Sale Sharks look to be major losers because of it.
Before the start of last season (2014-15) I saw a Sale squad assembled to retain their hard-fought for spot in the Champions Cup and play their usual brand of intelligent, hard-nosed rugby that, on paper, made them at best, play-off contenders, at worst, solidly mid-table (7th/8th/9th). Considering they eventually finished 7th, it was a fair assessment of the squad.
This season, barring a surprising Challenge Cup win, Sale are not going to come anywhere close to the Champions Cup or the top-six place they've become accustomed to fighting for since that disastrous first season at the AJ Bell (which to be fair they still only finished 9th having been bottom of the table for most of the season).
Instead Sale fans should prepare themselves to see their team hovering around the lower mid-table of the Premiership, as I have no reason to believe that this team, as currently assembled, is better than say an 9th place finish in 2015-16.
Now that is not to say Sale are candidates for relegation, (touch wood) they're far from it. They have a good core of first team players with spades of experiences and mastery of the uglier elements of the game of Union that are required to grind out victories, sprinkled with some exciting game-changing talents including Danny Cipriani, Will Addison and Josh Beaumont, all of whom have shown in the past they are capable of turning a game on its head at a moment's notice and pick up vital points for the Sharks.
In addition, the drop in intensity from competing in the Champions Cup to the Challenge Cup should allow Sale's relatively small and unbalanced squad to benefit from greater periods of rest, as Sale's first-choice XV will not have to compete in their entirety for an additional six rounds of games this coming season. The drop off in ability should allow some of Sale's peripheral players to get more opportunities in the first team and allow some of the older players to rest knocks and niggling injuries in a way they couldn't last season.
So why such a dire prediction of Sale's fortunes in 2015-16? As with everything in this world, it comes down to money, or lack thereof.
Sale's squad last season was worthy of its 7th place as I've now repeated countless time. They won some games they shouldn't have and lost some games they shouldn't have, sure. However in their squad there was quality and experience and a reasonable amount of depth. A couple of additions at key positions to what they already possessed and Sale would finally once again have a squad capable of competing for a play-off place.
However an abysmal summer of transfer activity for the Sharks has left their already threadbare squad low on Premiership talent and top-six calibre players. Whilst I am aware Sale operate on a shoe-string budget and therefore have trouble retaining players from sugar daddy-bankrolled Championship clubs and must jettison costly internationals who have proven to be inefficient at Premiership level, the gap in talent leaving the club from last season and arriving ahead of this season makes for tough reading, especially when you remember how good Sale were for periods last season and how close they were to becoming a serious force in the Premiership and Europe once again:
Neil Briggs (Leicester Tigers) - Two Year Deal
Bryn Evans (Biarritz) - Two Year Deal
Peter Stringer (Bath) - One Year Deal
Alberto Di Marchi - Contract Terminated
Mark Cueto - Retiring
Will Cliff - Bristol Rugby
Andy Forsyth - Yorkshire Carnegie
Nathan Fowles - Edinburgh Rugby
Nathan Hines - Retiring
Marc Jones - Bristol Rugby
Luke McLean - Contract Terminated
Michael Paterson - Northampton Saints
Now I'm not saying I don't believe Sale's newest signings were good deals or that Sale are going to rue losing every single one of their departing players during the forthcoming season. I found all three incoming players appropriate for the current makeup of Sale's squad and of those players leaving Manchester for greener pastures, only Jones, Hines, Paterson and McLean are losses that I think Sale would have hoped to avoid (I'm lumping McLean in with the others because I feel his natural ability and versatility would've eventually made him a quality Premiership player given more time to settle in England and at Sale with another season).
However there is no denying that from last season's squad to this season's, Sale have significantly downgraded. Not only have they lost a number of players who, when available, were among the first choices in the match day 23 who have been replaced by inferior players, Sale have lost even more depth outside their starting lineup when it was already a extremely alarming concern last season, and the main reason for their slide down the table at season's end.
For example I think Tommy Taylor and James Mitchell will eventually be better players than Marc Jones and Will Cliff respectively, but having players of the claire of Jones and Cliff able to cover the first team would have made me feel a lot more confident about Sale's chances across both the Premiership and the Challenge Cup next season.
In addition, Sale have still yet to address the gaping holes in their squad that they've had issues with for more than an entire season now. Despite the various rumours floating around, Sale are still yet to sign another Tighthead Prop to rotate with Vadim Cobilas, they only have three Locks in a position that requires two to be playing during every single minute of the season and, as I wrote about last week, a failure to replace Mark Cueto and/or Luke McLean means Sale's options in their back-three border on the embarrassing for a team that has maintained it is still targeting a top-six Premiership finish. Until those three positions are filled, Sale cannot be considered remotely close to where they were this time last year especially when a handful of injuries at one or two positions could completely decimate the squad.
To compound Sale's issue, not only are Sale a significantly worse team from last season but the teams around them in the mid-table bubble have all invested massively and now all possesses larger and more talented squads from a season ago. Wasps, Exeter, London Irish, Gloucester, Harlequins, and even Newcastle have upgraded substantially in ways Sale haven't come close to matching and when you factor in Worcester Warriors replacement of London Welsh in next year's Premiership, it is not hard to envision Sale having dropped three or four places down the table in comparison to last season by the end of May 2016.
Reassuringly, with it being a World Cup year, there are still many weeks for Sale to find the players to fill the sizeable gaps their squad currently has, and it would not surprise me in the least to see Sale being the busiest team in terms of player movement in the last few weeks leading up the opening round of the new Premiership season in October.
However, unless Sale make a number of substantial international additions to their squad to rival the moves of Exeter or Wasps, which considering Sale's financial constraints seems extremely unlikely, all evidence points to the 2015-16 season being a tough one for Sale.
Yet, there is reason for optimism in Salford. As difficult as it might be on the pitch this year for Sale with their squad depth weakened further and their rivals going from strength to strength, as has been alluded to by this article's title, 2015-16 could very well be a transitional year for Sale. Why?
Although the game of Union has altered dramatically since the Sharks' professional introduction in 2001 and Sale have not always been the quickest to adapt, one element of their business plan as a rugby club isolated in a footballing heartland continues to thrive today - their pipeline of young, English, home-grown talent.
As talented and vital to the club as are the Dan Braids, Eifon Lewis-Robertses and Sam Tuitupous, many core members of the Sale first team are now well into their 30s, and the Nathan Hineses and Brad Thorns of the world are anomalies - hardly any rugby players make it past 35 anymore.
There is a growing sense, emphasised by Dan Braid's impending move into retirement and coaching that will coincide with the end of this coming season, that the 'old guard' of Sale Sharks is beginning to move on, and the core of young English talent that has been nurtured by Sale for years is now beginning to make a legitimate impact on the Premiership and is ready to assume the mantle of the leaders of this Sale team.
Whilst my expectations for Sale this season are relatively pessimistic (that way when Sale eventually prove me wrong I am delighted rather than bashful), my expectations for Sale's future are exceedingly optimistic.
Sale are somewhat unique in the Premiership. Aided by their inability to build a first team around big-name, expensive international signings, they have developed nearly a full team's worth of English talent ready to replace their ageing stars that they will be able to build around over the next decade, following a similar model to Bath and Northampton albeit a few years behind.
We saw it last season with the emergence of Josh Beaumont and Mike Haley and the return from injury of Tommy Taylor and Will Addison - Sale's homegrown players getting substantial playing time in the Sale first team and not only surviving, but often impacting (and occasionally dominating) Premiership and European fixtures. These are the same players that have represented England at Junior level and are now pushing for Senior and Saxons recognition.
There were growing pains last season, of course, and this season will be no different, but in a Rugby world that is getting increasingly driven by money, Sale are building something special through their academy - a spine of a Premiership rugby club with homegrown English talent in a variety of positions.
And it showed through Sale's transfer dealings so far. Losing Jones, Cliff and McLean and replacing them on paper with only Neil Briggs and Peter Stringer is a definite downgrade. However whilst it still weakens the squad heading into next season to be sure, Sale are in a position that allows them to not have to splash out on big-money replacements for the aforementioned players because they have the likes of Taylor, Mitchell and (Mike) Haley, all with far brighter futures than those who are leaving, able to step straight into the first team with the potential to cement those positions as their own for the next decade, but whilst also being at a level right now to be significant contributors in the Premiership this season.
Of course not every one of Sale's prospects will blossom into the star their potential has suggested of them so far, but looking at the impact that has already been made by ex-Jets and academy players on the Sale team over the last few years, it is hard not to envision, only a year or so down the line, a first-choice Sale team that has six or seven potential England players holding down spots in the starting XV.
Those would be Ross Harrison, Tommy Taylor, Josh Beaumont, Mark Jennings, Will Addison and Mike Haley, seven players covering a number of key positions that Sale could rebuild their squad around once Braid and Lewis-Roberts et al. have all moved on.
And that is not even mentioning the next wave of English talent Sale are starting to see break through - Cameron Neild, Ciaran Parker, George Nott, James Mitchell, Tom Morton, Sam James and Sam Bedlow, should all begin to see greater opportunities in the first team and in a few years could join the above players as being the (many) cornerstones of Sale's future.
2015-16, in theory, will not be an easy one for Sale. A loss of valuable first team members from last season, relatively small-impact transfer dealings, the continued ageing of key leaders in the squad and the substantial moves made by Sale's closest rivals should push Sale far away from the top-six and down into the Premiership's lower mid-table. This is just a pragmatic estimation. I would love nothing more than to see Sale prove me wrong and once again push for not only a top-six place, but a play-off spot as well, but pre-season is a time for realism - we can reevaluate where Sale stand at Christmas - as of right now Sale are probably only the 9th best team in the Premiership.
But what is definitely worth keeping an eye on, alongside Sale's campaign in the Challenge Cup which I believe Sale will give a real go at attempting to win for that lucrative 2016-17 Champions Cup spot, is how does Sale's exciting pipeline of English talent perform in the 2015-16 season? Beaumont, Addison, Haley and co. are all players with the potential to be international superstars for both club and country and will soon be the players Sale look to build their club around for the next decade. The widening gaps from last year's squad, although not ideal, should at least afford Sale's gluttony of young English talent ample opportunities to impress in and around the Sharks' first team once again and the development of the Taylors, Harrisons et al. in 2015-16 could be crucial to how quickly Sale can rebuild in this gilded age of rugby and once again challenge for the play-offs and European honours in the coming years.
A top-six finish in 2015-16 would be a pleasant surprise for a Sale team that enters the new season significantly weakened from the last, but a far more impressive achievement could be using this coming season to identify, establish and double down on the core of young English talent who have all the combined tools to take Sale back to prominence in the very near future.
What is your prediction for Sale Sharks in 2015-16? 9th too low or too high? Remember to follow @SharkTankRugby on Twitter for more opinion, news and analysis, and tell your friends.
The 2014-15 season was a disappointment for Sale Sharks, let's not sugarcoat it.
Having been in contention for a play-off place as late in the season as the end of February, Sale's paper-thin squad, brought down by its inability to rotate the squad with anything resembling competitiveness, faltered miserably down the stretch winning only two of their final seven Premiership fixtures to finish the season in 7th place.
Now a 7th place finish in the most competitive domestic league in the world, especially considering Sale's meagre financial resources compared to their closest rivals (many of whom they finish above), is by no means a poor result. The underwhelming finish to the season however and the element of disappointment that resonated amongst Sale fans as the 2014-15 season came to a close comes because of an underlying sense of "what might have been".
At their best, Sale were a giant-killing, upper-mid table team, a team able to compete, frustrate and emerge victorious over play-off bound clubs whose financial capacities and chequebook prestige far outweighed Sale's own, for example, Saracens and Northampton both of whom Sale beat at home last uyear. When their squad permitted it, Sale were able to hang with every team in the league as a gritty, intelligent, hard-working club able to ground out results especially at their home in Salford. After a slow start to the season (two wins in their first six games), this approach allowed Sale, especially in the first half of the season, to beat the teams below them (home and away) and pick up wins in games historically they'd struggled to compete in (i.e. away at Harlequins).
However Sale's reliance and trust of only a small group of players (maybe 25-26 in total) to feature in their matchday 23 every week between the Premiership and Champions Cup would ultimately be their undoing. As the season progressed with (minor) injuries and knocks spreading throughout the squad, the effect of running a handful of key players into the ground for 80 minutes every week, with their backups and rotational options out of form or simply not trusted by the Sharks' coaching staff to compete in anything other than midweek Sale Jets games and meaningless LV Cup rounds, meant that by the end of the season, Sale's threadbare squad was quite simply, exhausted and could not muster up anything close to performances befitting a top-six Premiership club, especially against teams with larger squads with more effective rotation systems and fresher, healthier players.
In the end as rugby fans we could sit and play "what if" all day long without it ever impacting on our team's performance or history, however it is hard not to look back at Sale's 2014-15 season and not think "what if." What if Sale had been able to get off to a quicker start to the season and not throw away their ties with Bath (at home) and Gloucester (away) in the first two rounds of the season? What if some of the members on the Sale squad periphery had been trusted more throughout the season allowing Sale to have a game-ready bench to bring on against Leicester in December (by far, in my opinion, Sale's worst defeat of the season was throwing away that twenty point lead against Tigers to evcentually lose 32-30). What if Sale hadn't had to play a inexperienced mixture of youngsters and untested rotational options that would eventually be obliterated on their away trip to Wasps, the team that pipped Sale to the final Champions Cup place? And finally what if Sale had been able to pickup victories over London Irish and Harlequins in April, two games that were lost by Sale's costly mistakes and an ineffective gameplan, to keep their momentum building down the stretch of the season's end?
The Sale Sharks tam of 2014-15 was not a play-off team by any stretch. Sale's was a threadbare squad with more holes in it than a plate of Swiss cheese; lacking in genuine game-changing talent, reliant on a small group of players to perform exceptionally week-in, week-out, with the big-name signings of the previous summer crippled by ineffectiveness and loss of form, and without an ownership group capable of waving a magic wallet and rebuilding the squad on the fly.
Yet, somehow this was a team that for a long time looked capable of making the play-offs, and one that with a couple of close results going the other way, would be in the Champions Cup again this season. The big-name international acquisitions from abroad were for the most part, total busts, but in their stead the budding stars of Josh Beaumont and Mike Haley were able to burst onto the Premiership scene and make the No.8 and No.15 shirts respectively their own for (hopefully) the next decade. Despite having a front row that at times, was held together by little more than sellotape and Vadim Cobilas' omnipotent presence, Sale were still able to piece together a steady scrum that was the scourge of the Premiership for weeks on end with their devastatingly effective rolling maul and other forward techniques. A breakout campaign from Tom Arscott and Danny Cipriani's individual moments of brilliance were just two of the elements in a surprisingly dangerous backline attack that came together at times to be far more than the sum of its parts.
Call it unorthodox, unlikely or unrepeatable, a 7th place finish for Sale last season was about right. As a collective, Sale threatened the Premiership top-four when they had no right to do so and came close to securing a repeat Champions Cup place which would have been thoroughly deserved if not slightly surprising considering the investments being made by the likes of Wasps, Gloucester and Harlequins.
Sale were let down last year only by their own weakness in depth and inability to rotate the squad to match with their competitors and one wonders if they'd been able to do so and perhaps win the games that they lost because of their own mistakes rather than the merits of the opposition, then how much more fulfilling could Sale's season in 2014-15 have turned out.
"What if" will have followed and hung over Sale during these long, lazy summer months and it'll be a feeling they should look to put right. If Sale can learn from their mistakes of last season, who knows how strong Sale can be in 2015-16?
Part Two of SharkTanRugby's 2015-16 Sale Sharks Season Preview will be online by the end of the week and will look at where the Sale squad stand ahead of the 2015-16 season; how they match up with the rest of the Premiership's (and Europe's) teams; and a realistic estimation of where Sale could finish next season in both the Premiership and the Challenge Cup.
If one was to determine who will hold the key to Sale's attacking play this season, Tom Brady would probably be quite far down the list.
More logical choices (in no particular order) would include Danny Cipriani, Will Addison, Tom Arscott, Mike Haley or even Sam Tuitupou.
Cipriani the mercurial, defence-unlocking talent as the Fly-half pivot. Will Addison as a budding star blessed with a combination of both tackle-breaking power and elusive speed. Tom Arscott, somewhat a late bloomer in rugby terms whose electric pace and great try-scoring instincts saw him become Sale's most potent offensive weapon last season. Mike Haley, a young fullback whose natural ability and physical stature suggest with the right nurturing and training, he could be an international star for England. And Sam Tuitupou, the bulldozing Kiwi/Samoan whose physical prowess allows him to punch holes in opposing defences for his teammates to exploit.
All of the above have, and will continue to, play a more pivotal role in Sale's attacking stratagem this season than Brady who, despite making over 100 appearances for his hometown team, has never quite showed enough, either as an attacker or in defence, to hold down a regular spot on Sale's wing despite being an ever present in the Sale squad over the last five seasons.
Indeed Brady's struggles with consistency can be epitomised by the 2014/15 season just past, as Brady failed to making the starting fifteen for Sale in the Premiership between the end of November and the end of April as he was surpassed on both wings by both the aforementioned Will Addison and Tom Arscott.
That's not to sell Brady short. Although opinion is split amongst the Sale faithful over Brady's true worth to the club with some lamenting his perceived lack of defence and ability to truly influence games, Brady is still a solid Premiership player. Whilst he is neither the strongest nor quickest wing to be found in European rugby, Brady does possesses some physicality to break tackles and enough speed to justify his selection on the touchline. Additionally Brady's positional awareness and discipline is superb and probably his greatest asset. Many of Brady's 28 tries for Sale have come because he has been able to get himself into the right position at the right time and convert opportunities to score - an excellent attribute to have in a winger.
Unfortunately Brady's great positioning is countered by his so-so defence which has been plagued with inconsistencies. He has had a number of memorable defensive performances against top-class wings (look at the great job defensively he did to frustrate George North in Sale's 19-6 victory over Northampton back in March 2014), but then is just as liable to miss a simple tackle and unlike say, Mike Haley, he doesn't have the foot speed to recover putting Sale in a vulnerable position (see Anthony Watson's try for Bath against Sale in the first game of last season).
The point I'm making however is Tom Brady is a solid Premiership-level winger, capable of converting his chances and playing solid defence (most of the time) and is a nice rotation option for Sale to have even if he's never going to set the world alight.
Unfortunately that isn't going to cut it for Brady and Sale Sharks in 2015-16.
The Premiership competition for 2015-16 has improved drastically with the importation of world-renowned wingers by some of Sale's closest rivals a key reason for the increase in league-wide ability.
Teams such as Wasps, Gloucester, Harlequins and London Irish (the latter three who all finished beneath Sale in last year's competition) have all made significant additions to their wing depth with the arrivals of, amongst others, Frank Halai, Tom Marshall, Tim Visser and Sean Maitland, all top-six Premiership quality players.
As of today, the 17th July 2015 however, Sale, despite losing both Mark Cueto (retirement) and Luke McLean (Treviso) from their options amongst their back three who both played key roles in last year's first team, have yet to invest in any replacements for said players ahead of the upcoming season.
Whether this is due to insufficient transfer funds, a lack of appropriate talent left on the market due to Sale's seemingly late foray into negotiations for new players, or whether Director of Rugby Steve Diamond is waiting until the 2015 Rugby World Cup to pick up some unheralded names off the assembly line, I have no idea, (here's hoping its the latter).
However as I tweeted last week, the only indication from the club so far regarding any future back-three additions doesn't suggest any imminent dealings:
To come back to the titular statement then, if Sale are going to stick to their current selection of wingers and fullbacks, Tom Brady will be No.1 on the list of Sale players who need to raise their game in 2015/16.
One can presume as of this moment Sale's forecasted first choice XV will have Tom Arscott, Will Addison and Mike Haley starting at wing and fullback respectively.
This is fine, between the three of them there is an excellent blend of power, pace, territorial kicking ability, defensive accountability and game-changing talent. Also with that trio's relative youth when the season commences (28, 23 and 21 respectively) factored in, excitingly, there is still plenty of room and potential for Sale's go-to back three to grow into.
Beyond those three however, things become a lot more alarming.
First of all with McLean departing the club and Sale not having brought in a replacement, the only option beside Haley Sale hold at fullback is Tom Arscott, taking him away from his preferred (and more effective) position of left wing. If Haley goes down with injury or a loss of form, Sale's only alternative is to take one of their first-choice wingers off the touchline and plug him in at 15.
Secondly, Sale's depth in the back-three beyond their starters is to put it bluntly, mediocre. Phil Mackenzie, a Canadian international, has not played for Sale in the Premiership for nearly two years since joining from London Welsh. Charlie Ingall, despite impressing myself on the few opportunities I've had to see him play, made only two appearances for Sale last season - both in the LV Cup - for a measly total of 87 minutes. John O'Donnell is the most intriguing of the bunch, having represented Sale in last year's Premiership 7s competition and has since gone on to represent England in the Hong Kong 7s, however he has yet to make a single senior team appearance for the Sharks, and at 22, this season might be his only chance to stake a claim for a career in the 15-man game.
This leaves Tom Brady as the only somewhat regular first-team player feasibly able to step in and put in a suitable performance for a team that is, apparently, challenging for the Premiership's top-six.
Thus, this why I wrote this piece. As talented and promising Sale's current trio of back-three starters are, the depth behind them, especially if Sale don't make any moves to strengthen before the start of the season, is laughably thin. Whilst there are some intriguing prospects in the mix, Tom Brady represents the only other Sale winger who is anything close to being top-six standard.
In today's modern game, successful rugby clubs require deep squads with a number of supplementary players able to rotate into the first team squad without a noticeable drop-off in talent. With Sale not compeitting in the Champions Cup this season, they may be able to just about get away with a threadbare squad without any more key additions (except at Tighthead Prop which desperately needs investment *cough* Mujati). But if Sale are serious about challenging for the Premiership top-six this season, they need their experienced rotational first team players, i.e. Brady, to prove they can be of that quality.
With few options at fullback beyond rotating their first-choice wingers into that position and both Arscott and Addison's previous struggles with injuries (Addison in particular has been heinously unlucky with the injury bug), there is no doubt that Tom Brady will see a significantly increased role amongst the Sale first team this season and as a consequence he needs to make the leap from bit-part, rotational option, into a top-six calibre player able to influence games and perform consistently week-in, week-out.
This improvement needs to come in the form of increased strength and power which will allow him to break tackles in tighter spaces and become more efficient challenging for the ball in the air; increased foot speed to capitalise fully on broken field opportunities; and a tightening up of his defensive awareness and tackling technique. In the 2015/16 season Brady needs to be a genuine 1a/1b option on either wing who can slide into the first team, create and score his own try opportunities and not give away soft scores at the other end of the field.
If Brady is able to rise to the challenge, he would becomes the latest member of an extremely talented core of young, English players who Sale should and will look to build their first team around over the next decade; as well as likely garner England Saxons consideration again (maybe) and help propel Sale back into contention for a spot in next season's Champions Cup.
However if Brady isn't able to generate any noticeable improvement once domestic rugby resumes in October, Sale will be solely dependant on the talents of only Tom Arscott and Will Addison to carry the team on the wing, an alarming situation which is not indicative of a successful team. Sale cannot rely on only two wingers to be of Premiership standard for an entire season, especially if they are serious about rebounding from a somewhat underwhelming finish to the 2014/15 season.
Ideally by now, Sale would have brought in another international quality Back able to cover both wing and fullback to shore up Sale's shallow depth in those two positions. However as of today, that is not the case and therefore makes Tom Brady one of the most integral component to Sale's success ahead of the 2015/16 season.
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The widely-spread rumors that preluded the departure of Sale head coach Bryan Redpath to become Director Of Rugby of Yorkshire Carnegie with immediate effect, ensured that when, back in April, that news did indeed become official following the Championship club's announcement, it came as little surprised to the rugby world and Sale faithful. What was more surprising however was the manner in which Steve Diamond and the rest of the Sale coaching brass opted to react to the newly formed void in the Sharks' backroom staff. Instead of immediately replacing Redpath with a short term hire to fill in for the former Sale scrum half's duties for the remaining five games of the season, Diamond instead chose to field Redpath's responsibilities by committee and wait until the summer to bring in a permanent option as what Diamond referred to as an 'Attack and Kicking Coach'.
On Thursday evening the identity of the newest Sale Sharks coach became known with official announcements from both Sale Sharks and Wigan Warriors that the Warriors' assistant coach Paul Deacon was to switch codes to join Sale as their Attack and Kicking Coach ahead of the 2015-16 season.
Whilst it is premature to estimate the impact Deacon COULD have on a Sale attack that, at times last season, faltered against the toughest opposition, on paper the addition of Deacon should prove to be an inspired one.
Deacon, still only 35 years old, enjoyed a storied playing career in Rugby League as a member of both Bradford Bulls and his hometown Wigan Warriors before joining the Warriors coaching staff as an assistant to Shane Wane in 2011. In addition, Deacon has extensive experience in international League management having served as part of Steve McNamara's coaching staff with the English National Team as an assistant since 2013.
Deacon's appointment as part of the Sale hierarchy is a great fit for a number of reasons. Not only does Deacon already have multiple years of coaching in the very same role Sale will employ him in, his track record with Wigan is phenomenal with the Warriors twice leading the league in points scored (2012, 2014) since he took over as Attack coach with a Super League and Challenge Cup Winners’ medal as a coach (2013), to boot.
Additionally as the modern game of Union continues to increasingly incorporate League players, coaches and strategy in the never-ending search for a distinct competitive advantage over their opponents, Sale's utilisation of their unique position as the sole Premiership rugby club within the hotbed of Rugby League that is the North-West, has allowed them to secure the arrival of a coach of the ilk and stature of Deacon who's cross-code switch will have raised some eyebrows throughout English Rugby.
Deacon's arrival mirrors that of Mike Forshaw's - who incidentally was a former teammate of Deacon's at Bradford - an appointment that has won universal adulation from across the Rugby world following the dramatic turnaround of the Sharks' defensive efficiency that Forshaw has orchestrated since joining Sale before the 2013-14 season as a Defence and Tackling coach. If Deacon is able to make a similar impact to that of his cross-code predecessor, Steve Diamond will once again be vindicated for making a somewhat unconventional dip into the (Rugby League) managerial market.
On the face of it, Deacon's appointment looks to be another astute choice on the part of Steve Diamond who now adds an international renowned attacking coach to his growing stable of experienced, intuitive and forward-thinking specialist coaches.
Watching how Deacon employs attacking schemes and stratagem tested and popularized in Super League to bring out the very best of the attacking ability of the likes of Ciprinai, Addison, Haley and Arscott amongst others during the 2015/16 season should be fascinating to watch, and Deacon's expertise and experience in his specialist area should ensure going forward that at all times this season Sale's attack will be more coordinated, organised and incisive than in previous seasons where, in close games, their inability to penetrate defences with above average linespeed has been their undoing. The nature of Deacon’s experience against Super League defences which naturally come off the line and close off space quicker than their Union counterparts should turn this notable weakness of Sale’s into a match-winning strength.
Also worth watching is the effect Deacon's coaching has on Sale's Fly-Halves, more specifically, their kicking. Deacon should refine Cipriani's sometimes overenthusiastic kicking from hand and should also help Joe Ford's placekicking which faltered badly down there stretch of last season most notably against Harlequins where his two missed conversions arguably costing Sale the game.
In the end, the delay in finding a replacement Head/Attacking coach for Bryan Redpath may have been longer than anticipated for both the Sale Sharks clubhouse and their fans, but on paper it looks like Sale's patience has been rewarded with a very astute addition in Paul Deacon.
N.B. As many of SharkTankRugby's frequent visitors will probably now already, I've been away on holiday over the last two weeks. My holiday, initially unbeknownst to myself however, coincided with the first year anniversary of SharkTankRugby and so this piece has come slightly later than originally planned.
One year and eight days ago, July 3rd 2014, SharkTankRugby was officially born. The decision to start a blog dedicated to Sale Sharks was born out of two separate but connected thoughts I held at the time. First on a personal level, I wanted to start a journalistic enterprise that was dependant on my content to encourage myself to continue writing about rugby and the team I support after I left to attend university - where the possibility that I neglected my interest in sports writing without a suitable outlet was entirely possible. The second thought was that as the passionate supporter of Sale Sharks Rugby that I am, I wanted to find a way to broaden my interactions with fellow Sale fans by providing my thoughts and opinions on all topics that arose around the club and subsequently encouraging discussion on those same topics.
Whilst not all of my ideas on how to provide additional Sale Sharks-related content have enjoyed as much success as I’d have liked over the last year, for me personally, running SharkTankRugby has proven to be an exciting, challenging and fulfilling enterprise that has hopefully given the readers of this website as much joy in reading and discussing the articles posted as it has for myself in writing them.
SharkTankRugby at one year old is still very much in its infancy and as interest, readership and its audience continues to grow, my hope is that the blog grows with it. Ideally, SharkTankRugby will eventually become a creative space for multiple rugby writers and Sale enthusiasts to write freely with additional multi-media content for all platforms. The latter may come in the form of a (resurrected) podcast or another idea I’m yet to think of or be suggested.
As always, both now and in the future, I am open to suggestions on how to improve the website for the benefit of all those who visit SharkTankRugby, along with criticisms, thoughts on layout and design, and ideas for features or subjects to cover on the site in the future. As the calendar ticks over and we now look ahead to the impending 2015/16 season, ideas, suggestions and criticisms become all the more important in helping SharkTankRugby build on the foundations it lay down in 2014/15.
Finally I’d like to say a few thankyous to the people who through their interactions, tips, promulgation of articles and the like have helped make running SharkTankRugby such an interesting and gratifying venture.
Special thankyous go out therefore to James Madeley, TheKeg, the operators of the Sale Sharks Fans and #RugbySaleSharks Twitter accounts whose names I unfortunately do not know, Joe Brame, Simon Holman, Stuart Almond Mark Hoddell, Simon (@MuddyDwarf) and everyone else who has read, liked, shared, followed, commented or interacted in any other way with the content featured on the SharkTankRugby blog, be it on Twitter, Facebook, the Fans Forum or the SharkTankRugby website itself. All of you support is greatly appreciated and without which SharkTankRugby could not be possible.
Here’s to many more years.