Continuing SharkTankRugby's pre-season features that take a look at the upcoming 2015/16 season for Sale Sharks, today we tackle the question: who makes up the best possible starting lineup for Sale this season?
'Best' is obviously subjective and different players will be asked to fulfil different roles over the course of a rugby season depending on opposition, fitness levels and gameplan amongst others, so for this exercise the criteria is simple; who are the best twenty-three players currently in the Sale squad that the Sharks could roll out on any given week?
Also to tie-in the news of the day, don't expect to see Sale's latest signing Nev Edwards - who was announced to have signed a one-year deal with the club Wednesday morning - feature in this list. To give a succinct opinion on the matter; I believe Edwards certainly offers a number of exciting skills unique to only himself within the Sale squad, however I don't believe a 27 year-old who only turned pro this summer and has extremely limited experience of playing the full, unabridged union game, is the calibre of player Sale needed to bolster their wing and back-three ranks in the face of Mark Cueto's and Luke McLean's departures. I wrote in detail about this the other day (so please do take a look at it), but in short, Edwards only adds to the middling pack of untested players that lie far below the likes of Tom Arscott, Will Addison and possibly Tom Brady on the Sale depth chart which simply isn't good enough for a team with the ambitions Sale have.
Anyway, onto the team:
Loosehead Prop - Ross Harrison
Another player I wrote in detail about a few weeks ago (so forgive me for the short entry), for me Ross Harrison has to be Sale's starting Loosehead this year. He has the experience (just short of 100 apperances for Sale), the fitness levels (has considerably slimmed down over summer) and the pure ability (strongest player ever to play for Sale) to far out-shine current incumbent Eifon Lewis-Roberts, a player clearly on the down-swing of his career. Harrison has all the tools to be a full England international as early as this time next year, why keep him on the bench any longer?
Hooker - Tommy Taylor
A fellow potential England international and possible choice to become Sale's next captain, Taylor is the biggest reason why many Sale fans were not too upset when Marc Jones opted to move back closer to home with Bristol this summer. In short, Jones' departure allows Taylor a clear run with the staring hooker jersey. The 23 year-old is quick, strong, tactically aware and a great lineout-thrower with immense potential still to be reached, Taylor is far and away the best hooker Sale currently have on their books, and should, with even greater exposure to the first team, eventually become a better player than his predecessor Marc Jones was for Sale.
Tighthead Prop - Vadim Cobilas
Perhaps the first controversial decision on this list, despite Brian Mujati's arrival as the big summer signing for Sale, I still have to pay homage to arguably the most consistent player Sale have had in the last four seasons. Mujati has arrived with a lot of pedigree, all of it justified, and probably is in all truth the superior player. However Sale have struggled with their big-name arrivals bedding into the club in recent years and until Mujati has got a somewhat substantial body of work under him, I do not feel confident in saying that Mujati is decisively better than the ever-present Vadim Cobilas, who, as I've said before, is someone I believe to be one of the most underrated players in the entire league.
Locks - Jonathan Mills and Bryn Evans
Things get even murkier once Sale's second row comes into question. With only three out-and-out locks in the squad once George Nott's academy status and the uncertainty around Josh Beaumont's optimum position are factored in, Sale really do not have a plethora of options to choose from. With Bryn Evans a newcomer to the side as well with the Kiwi's level and ability of contribution this season still undetermined, making a definite choice as to who Sale's best locks are is tough.
Jonathan Mills is definitely a name to be pencilled in however. Although on the surface his fitness levels may be questionable, Mills is a skilled and experienced operator who serves as a key, and often unheralded cog, in the Sharks' forwards-heavy gameplan; repeatedly taking the ball into contact for hard yards, making tackles, clearing out rucks and being a disrupting menace at either Sale's, or the opposition's, rolling mauls.
Who partners him however is tougher to decide, however I am leaning slightly more towards Evans. Ostrikov is certainly a skilled and extremely fun to watch player, however his discipline, or lack thereof, seems perpetually to hold him back from attaining a consistent starting place. And with Diamond seemingly comfortable enough to make Evans his only addition to the 'donkey row' despite Sale's lack of depth at the position, it speaks volumes to the player Diamond believes he's snagged. I'll admit I was impressed by Evans' physicality and strength when I saw him play live a few weeks back and Diamond does have a particular proficiency at snagging relatively low-key forwards and turning them into indispensable team members, see Michael Paterson.
Blindside Flanker - Dan Braid
This is an easy one. At 34 Braid's best days are clearly behind him, but he's still a hugely influential player for Sale even if physically he cannot bear the brunt off too many more 80 minute games. Regardless of if he plays 50 or 70 minutes, Braid is a massive personality in the Sale dressing room and by far their most important leader on the pitch and simply has to start every game if possible.
Openside Flanker - Magnus Lund
Although I actually believe David Seymour is (very marginally) a better overall player than Lund, Sale's gameplan works so much more fluently with Seymour coming off the bench as a fresh and dangerous, turnover and counter-attacking option akin to what Dan Braid does for the first 50 minutes of a game. Therefore because of the differences between Lund - 6ft 3' and a stronger ball-carrier and lineout option - and Braid, Lund gets the starting 7 shirt for Sale to balance out Sale's commendably strong backrow and allow Diamond the luxury of utilising David Seymour as something of a 'super-sub'.
Number 8 - Josh Beaumont
I don't even need to explain this one.
Scrum-half - Chris Cusiter
Wrongly - at least in my eyes - criticised by some during his first season in Manchester, Cusiter ticks all the boxes of a starting Premiership scrum-half. The now-ex Scottish international is experienced, quick around the breakdown (an area the arrival of Paul Deacon has already made a noticeable impact on), a crisp passer, versatile enough to orchestrate a differing tempo mid-game and has already built an impressive rapport with Danny Cipriani. Although not as incisive as say Danny Care or Joe Simpson, Cusiter is still a great player; Peter Stringer won't be stealing starts away from him in 2015-16.
Fly-half - Danny Cipriani
It wasn't going to be Joe Ford or Nick MacLeod now was it?
Left Wing - Tom Arscott
Definitely a more effective and dangerous player on the wing as opposed to at fullback, Arscott has come on magnificently in his two years at Sale since joining from London Welsh and is now one of the most dangerous attacking players in the entire Sharks side. Arscott's ability to cover fullback is a plus one feels Steve Diamond will be making plenty of use out of this season, but it's predominately Arscott's ability to evade tackles, counter-attack and slice holes in opposing defences that make him first choice for Sale's left-wing.
Inside Centre - Sam Tuitupou
One of Sale's key leaders both on and off the field, 'Hacksaw Sam', even at 33, is still the instrumental figure in Sale's midfield. Deceptively quick and evasive for a player of his physique , the ability to literally run over people and pass out of the dummy run also helps makes Tuitupou a key facilitator in Sale's attacking gameplan. Sammy T also the leader of the Sharks' defensive line and sets the tempo for Sale's punishing defence with the huge bone-rattling tackles that have made him into a cult hero. Unmoveable from Sale's lineup.
Outside Centre - Johnny Leota
The 'bosh brothers' tandem of Tuitupou and Leota is often-maligned by Sale fans, myself included, however Sharks supporters often do forget the relative riches Sale enjoy in their midfield. Although I am of the opinion that Leota is better served as an Inside Centre, Leota is still an above-average 13 and his suspiciously similar style of play to Tuitupou makes him the second half one of the most feared duos in the entire Premiership to match up against.
Right Winger - Will Addison
Definitely a more effective and dangerous player on the wing than at centre (apparently his preferred position) Addison, known for his glass-like status, has proved himself a more durable player playing as a winger. And durability is the key attribute Sale require from Addison at this stage in his career. The Cumbrian-born flyer has proven himself to be an exciting talent as a ball-carrier, runner, tackler and in-play kicker but it is his health issues over the last three years that has kept Addison from reaching his extraordinary high potential. Addison is a perfectly adept talent for a top-six team at either 13 or 14, but if 14 keeps him off the treatment table for longer, wing is where he should stay.
Fullback - Mike Haley
Although the 'breakout' season many have lauded was plagued by inconsistencies in form, Haley remains one of the brightest talents Sale currently possess. With great physical attributes and on-field awareness Haley has the basis of a skillset to be another legitimate international player for Sale in the near-future. More game-time is needed however for Haley to really blossom into the player his play last season hinted he was capable of becoming, and there should be no debate as to who to give the starting 15 shirt to this season after Haley brutally usurped the ineffective Luke McLean last year. Haley is the future of Sale's back-three.
16 - Eifon Lewis-Roberts
17 - Cameron Neild
18 - Brian Mujati (for now)
19 - David Seymour
20 - TJ Ioane (Beaumont or Lund are both capable of covering second row if needed)
21 - Peter Stringer
22 - Joe Ford (as long as his goal-kicking has been able to rebound after some dire attempts at the sticks last season)
23 - Mark Jennings
With current captain Dan Braid set to retire at the completion of the 2015/16 season to join the Sharks' coaching staff full-time as a Forwards coach, come season's end Sale will have a huge void to fill, not only on the field but in the dressing room as well.
David Seymour has served as vice-captain since, ironically, being usurped as captain by Braid after the 2012-13 season following the Kiwi's magnanimous leadership that helped Sale stave off relegation despite only joining mid-way through the season with the Sharks firmly anchored to the bottom of the league.
However despite taking the captain's armband on a number of occasions in Braid's absence in the seasons since, Seymour was noticeably armbandless when Sale took the field against Leicester in the Kings Of The North competition a few weeks ago with it being Tommy Taylor who was given the honour of leading the team out instead.
What to take from all this is effectively: when Braid transitions from a player to a coach in 8 months' time, don't expect Dave Seymour to be the man to replace him as Sale's captain.
Whilst the aforementioned Tommy Taylor is a very strong bet to become Sale's youngest captain since James Gaskell, don't be surprised however if the honour goes to Josh Beaumont instead.
Why Beaumont though; a 23 year-old with only 29 appearances for Sale, 26 of which came in his only full (but arguably 'breakout') season?
First of, although Beaumont is admittedly short on top-flight domestic experience (he'll presumably only have 50 or so appearances for Sale and total by the time Braid retires next season), he does have the pedigree of having served as a captain before, in this instance for the England Students team and for Durham University who under Beaumont's guidance went undefeated in 2013. Is it the same as captaining a Premiership side or even an England underage side? Of course not, but a University side - with the advancements made by the BUCS league - is still a great place to cut your leadership teeth. And speaking of pedigree, although I'm already bored of him being mentioned in every single piece written about Sale's budding star, it would be foolish to ignore that Josh's father, Bill Beaumont, will probably have some tips to offer vis-a-vis how to be a good captain and team leader.
Secondly the magnitude of Beaumont's explosion onto the club scene for Sale last season has already ensured he is an integral component of the Sharks' gameplan week-in, week-out. Not only did Beaumont take on the role of lineout captain - apparently on the advice of one Nathan Hines - when he first began his run in the first team, but Beaumont's impressive form last season; as a ball-carrier, tackler, lineout winner, try scorer etc has seen him already enshrined as one of the very best players Sale have at their disposal, with the potential to get even better. Beaumont's ability to switch between both the second and back rows is just another facet of his game that has improved his worth to the team. In short, captains need to be leading figures in their side, even after only a handful of games, Beaumont is certainly that.
Speaking of potential, of all the players currently at Sale - and I have played up the chances of many of them - should Beaumont be able to avoid 'Second Season Syndrome' an illustrious international career seemingly awaits. Beaumont's attention-grabbing form saw him duly awarded with a callup to England in their end-of-season exhibition game with the Barbarians and despite the 2015 World Cup coming a little too early for him, Beaumont - whether as a lock or a No.8 - figures to become an integral member of the English national team perhaps as early as next year.
Finally without being too cynical (although I think we can all agree a little bit of cynicism in the 'Salary Cap' era of Premiership Rugby is worth having) promoting Beaumont to captain would be a very strong gesture that could ensure the 23 year-old's head doesn't get turned if one of the 'big boys' of the Premiership come a-knocking, which one presumes they will eventually. Of course that is not to say Saracens or Northampton couldn't entice Beaumont to leave if he was made Sale captain, but such a gesture would re-affirm Sale's commitment to building their team around arguably the most promising player that has come out of the club in a number of years, sorry James Gaskell. Having an England international as captain would also give Sale a second 'star' player to market and pair with Danny Cipriani, hopefully enticing more people through the gates at the AJ Bell.
A similar situation could also happen with Tommy Taylor, with the Macclesfield-born hooker another of Sale's players being touted by the England coaching staff no less of being a future England international. Taylor only penned a one year-extension to his contract last season and will certainly be another player having tabs kept on him by some of the biggest and richest clubs in the top-half of the Premiership. Although I've outlined why I think Beaumont should be the heir apparent to the Sale captaincy, one imagines Taylor will also get long consideration for the role. Beaumont as captain and Taylor as vice-captain is a setup I would definitely get behind.
Lewis Hughes also reaffirmed his commitment to Sale Sharks earlier this week by writing most of this article hungover in his student house. Follow SharkTankRugby on Twitter here and if you do Instagram you can follow Lewis' personal shenanigans here.
With Sale, as part of their two week hiatus from Kings Of The North preseason action, currently away training in Lisbon, there is little to no new information for poor writers such as myself to fixate upon.
Therefore using this break from traditional preparations ahead of a new season, lets take a look at the upcoming 2015-16 season and make some predictions for how our beloved rugby club rooted in South Manchester will fare across the Premiership, European Challenge Cup, and beyond.
If you're interested in amassing evidence as to why my word and opinions mean absolute jack, do take a look at the predictions I made for Sale's 2014-15 season here. I mean 3 out of 5 ain't bad but Christ, lack at that horrendous formatting.
Sale will win the Kings Of The North competition:
Two wins out of two, 10 points in the bag, 74 points scored, only 27 points conceded, and two seemingly less interested sides in Newcastle and Leicester, suggest that despite not even being halfway through the inaugural edition of the Kings Of The North competition, its Sale's to lose. One more win either against Leicester away or Newcastle at home in the final round all but guarantees Sale's first 'silverware' since 2006.
Sale have five representatives in England's first EPS/Saxons squads of 2016:
Perhaps quite a bold claim considering Sale have exactly 0 representatives in the 31-man England squad that will kick off the 2015 World Cup against Fiji on Friday, but hear me out:
Whether it is Stuart Lancaster or - should the Yorkshireman's preparations spectacularly crash and burn on home soil in the next four weeks - somebody new at the helm of English rugby in 2016, their focus will undoubtedly be set upon the 2019 Japanese World Cup and initiating the transition from the elder statesman of this current creme de la crop of English players to a new, youthful, and hungry batch of premier English talent with the 2016 Six Nations a perfect jumping off point for say, Richard Wigglesworth, Geoff Parling and David Wilson.
As I've reiterated many a time before, Sale's current squad setup is poised to build a team for this season and beyond around a core of young, English talent. Ross Harrison, Tommy Taylor, Josh Beaumont, Will Addison and Mike Haley are all already established starters in a full-strength Sharks side and will play a prominent role in every Sharks fixture between now and the new year - giving them a full half season's worth of games in the Premiership and Europe to build up an impressive resume of form for Lancaster or whomever else to muse upon.
It is also pertinent to remember that Harrison, Taylor and Beaumont have all already been selected for England invitational duty since Lancaster took charge in 2011, all pinpointed as potential regulars for England in the near future, see: post World Cup. That is even before mentioning Mr Cipriani who was inches away from being Sale's sole English representative at this year's World Cup and who could find his international fortunes buoyed should a less conservatively-inclined coach than Stuart Lancaster be in charge.
My prediction of five sees Tommy Taylor, Josh Beaumont and Danny Cipriani all named in a slightly-less scrutinised England's Elite squad for the 2016 Six Nations, regardless of if Lancaster remains in charge or not. Ross Harrison and Mike Haley will also be selected to represent the England Saxons when they turn out to play their annual late-winter exhibition fixtures.
Will Addison doesn't stay totally injury-free but is Sale's leading try-scorer:
Despite another injury-hit season that saw Addison only available to suit up in 12 games, the 23 year-old Cumbrian flyer impressed mightily in his limited appearances in 2014-15 racking up three tries amidst a number of exciting and creative attacking displays mixed in with some airtight tackling and defensive work.
With multiple career-threatening injuries now a firm two years behind him, Addison has had since mid-February to rest and rehabilitate himself ready for the upcoming season with the club adamant Addison finally has a clean bill of health for the first time in nearly three years.
It seems like every season since making his debut in 2012 that I've tipped Addison to finally stay injury-free for an entire year and make good on the immense potential he has so sporadically had the opportunity to flash.
However this year I'm not going down the naively optimistic route, instead opting to face some harsh pragmatism. Addison probably won't stay free from injury all season as unfortunately for all his ability Addison seems destined to forever be a nasty knock away from retirement. So instead I'm tempering my expectations and saying that Addison will play around 23 or 24 games for Sale this season, injuries permitting, but will finally begin to make inroads into forging a successful domestic and international career racking up 12 tries - and some serious chemistry playing on Danny Cipriani's shoulder in Paul Deacon's revitalised attacking gameplan - to finish the season as Sale's top try scorer.
Sale finish 9th in the Premiership, Quarter-finalists in the Challenge Cup
I've already written extensively about Sale and their predicted fortunes in the Premiership this year so forgive me if I don't elaborate too extensively on my predicted 9th place finish. In short, even after finally confirming Brian Mujati's arrival, I still harbour serious doubts that Sale have enough manpower in their squad to mount a serious top-six challenge, although of course I'd be delighted to be proven wrong.
Vis-a-vis the Challenge Cup however, I do believe Sale have a real chance to qualify out of their pool especially if their opponents become more concerned with a hypothetical decline in domestic form which has been an issue in the past predominately for the competing French sides on occasion i.e. Biarritz two years ago.
However the ridiculous update to the second-tier European competition's format that sees the 9th, 10th and 11th best Champions Cup teams 'parachute' directly into the Challenge Cup's quarter-final stages means that although progress out of the pool stages is possible for Sale, they could struggle mightily to get any further beyond that should they be forced into playing the likes of Ulster or Racing Metro in the next round.
Ross Harrison is Sale's starting Loosehead Prop before new year:
Since his Sharks debut in 2005, Loosehead Prop Eifon Lewis-Roberts has been one of Sale's most consistent performers in his two spells at the club (2005-2011 and 2012-Present, punctured by a year in Toulon) and was deservingly given a two-year extension to his current contract in January of this year which will see him contracted to play on as a Shark until 2017.
However despite the experience and longevity Lewis-Roberts offers to Sale, matters of a loosehead nature are coming to a head. Eifon is now 34 years-old, and although his exceedingly ample frame never made him the most mobile of players (although he's still deceptively quick and spry for someone weighing a shade under 21 stone), its clear he is no longer the destructive scrummaging unit of 2011 on the pitch that saw him become the focus of the mega-riches that Toulon had to offer, for one season at least.
Indeed last season Eifon Lewis-Roberts was the most penalised Loosehead in the entire league and although he is still a serviceable prop with the occasional flash of scrummaging dominance, he is no longer consistent enough to justify being given 60 minutes of gametime a week come hell-or-highwater.
And this is where Ross Harrison comes in. Having already ran out for his boyhood club 97 times, Harrison has already amassed considerable experience as Lewis-Roberts' understudy and at 23, is at the perfect age to take over full-time duty as Sale's starting Loosehead prop for both now and the future.
With Brian Mujati's arrival finally signalling the end to Harrison's bit-part conversion to Tighthead that Steve Diamond initiated as a last-resort following the monumental disappointment that was to be Alberto de Marchi's time as a Shark, Harrison is now clear to focus all his efforts on becoming the Loosehead that Stuart Lancaster has already tabbed as a potential future England international.
On Saturday Harrison stood out as astonishingly lean following a summer of hard-training and that newly-formed mobility, combined with the strength that saw him break Andrew Sheridan's record as the strongest player ever to pull on a Sale shirt, should make Harrison a devastating force in both the loose and the tight for Sale next season as he finally wins the starting shirt of one of Sale's longest-tenured players.
How great is it to have rugby back again?
Sure the game was horrendously one-sided, the crowd sparse, and the context of the fixture rendering the final result effectively meaningless, but I genuinely can't think of a better way to spend my Saturday afternoons than in Sale's very own cookie cutter stadium watching the North-West's sole Premiership side.
And this Saturday afternoon was especially enjoyable. Sale ran in six tries (Fihaki, Mujati, Beaumont, Neild, Flynn and Haley) in a surprisingly dominant display over a very poor Leicester side that never once threatened making it anything other than a routine victory for the Sharks in their first home game of the season.
Sale have now recorded victories in both of their first two Kings Of The North fixtures and are realistically only one further win away from being crowned champions of this inaugural competition. Hey at least it's some silverware right?
It took over eight months since the official opening of the window for player transfers for the 2015-16 season, but Sale Sharks have today finally made the statement signing fans of the club have been longing for all year.
10 long weeks after the Rugby Paper initially broke that the story that a deal was being negotiated, earlier this morning (Friday) Sale finally confirmed they have signed ex-Racing Metro and Northampton Saints Tighthead Prop Brian Mujati to a two-year deal in spectacular fashion:
This is a great signing.
Although some concerns have been raised about Mujati's recently discovered penchant for body-building that have seen some doubt his long-term commitment to rugby, and his slight decrease in effectiveness as a prop since the new scrum laws were established in 2013, you know what?
It doesn't fucking matter.
After nearly two years of being solely dependant on Vadim Cobilas to hold down the right side of the Sharks' scrum, Sale have finally, finally, signed another actual, (not-a-converted-loosehead) Tighthead who can rotate with their Moldovan Prop and ease the Herculean burden the 32-year old Cobilas has been forced to shoulder in recent seasons.
It doesn't matter if Mujati is now more interested in bodybuilding than professional rugby union (which Mujati himself implied on his Life of Brian vlogs stemmed from his discontent at his situation playing in France and should therefore not follow him back to England).
It doesn't matter if he isn't quite the dominant Tighthead he was at Northampton that made him a fan-favourite at Northampton and saw him win 12 caps for South Africa.
What matters is that Sale finally have another Premiership calibre Tighthead prop who can more than hold his own at the top level and rotate seamlessly with the aforementioned Cobilas to form an effective duo that will play a key role in Sale's forwards-heavy gameplan this season.
In one swoop, Sale have turned their single greatest weakness from last season into a huge position of strength.
They now have two dominant Tighthead Props to play week-in, week-out in both the Premiership and Europe and a very promising prospect in 19 year-old Ciaran Parker who has already cut his teeth at Premiership level, developing in the wings to eventually supersede the pair in the future.
No disrespect to Bryan Evans, Neil Briggs or Peter Stringer, but Brian Mujati is the first calibre of signing by Sale in 2015 to really put the Premiership on notice.
If Steve Diamond can somehow secure additional players of Mujati's level of talent, experience and prestige to fill the gaps at Lock and Winger before the season starts, perhaps my prediction of a 9th place Premiership finish for Sale in 2015/16 will no longer be relevant.
Lewis Hughes got so sick of waiting for Mujati to be signed that he actually wrote this piece at the start of August and updated it this morning. Please do follow SharkTankRugby on Twitter here or Lewis' personal Instagram here
Sale's first foray into the inaugural Kings Of The North pre-season tournament began with a resounding six-try, 36-22 victory over Newcastle Falcons on a sunny North-Eastern afternoon last Sunday.
Although I wasn't privvy to see the game in-person - Newcastle is a long way to go for a preseason game after all - I am lead to believe the diminutive flyer that is trialist Nev Edwards stole the show with two tries (the second of which, according to the MEN's Neil Leigh, saw Edwards showcase footwork that "wouldn't be amiss from Strictly Come Dancing") in addition to some good work recovering a loose ball from a kick downfield to aid Mark Jennings' 54th minute try, in what was considered overall a sparkling, 80-minute performance.
For Edwards, now confirmed to be on trial with the Sharks following a sudden appearance in Sale's squad for the Premiership Sevens a fortnight ago, it was close to a perfect performance as he looks to secure a full-time gig in South Manchester. Indeed Sale's is a squad that noticeably lacks game-breaking pace in its backline, something Edwards showed he possesses in spades on Sunday, as he also has over the last three weeks.
All in all it was a great weekend for the 27 year-old who certainly put his hand up in a position Sale are looking to strengthen ahead of the 2015/16 season.
However I think it is fair to say we shouldn't start believing Nev Edwards is the solution to the problems Sale currently have in their back-three. In fact that solution probably isn't even a member of the Sharks at the moment.
Having lost Mark Cueto to retirement and given Luke McLean back to Italy, Sale's current corps of players able to play as either wingers or at fullback stands as perilously as a ballerina on a cliff edge.
Yes there is Will Addison, Tom Arscott and Mike Haley as the de facto first-choice trio - three players, albeit at different stages of their development, capable of producing attacking, tactically and individually defensive performances meriting starting spots in a top-six side. But beyond those three there is precious little in the way of genuine high end talent for a team with goals as lofty as Sale's this season, especially as both Cueto and McLean's departures - who for the sake of argument I would class as "top-six calibre" - have not been off-set by any new additions to the Sharks' backline.
Looking especially at the current wings in the Sale squad which is unlikely to change much before the new season begins, beyond Addison and Arscott there is Tom Brady; a serviceable Premiership player but whose true value lies in the depth he provides as a backup/rotational option. Phil Mackenzie; a Canadian international with great foot-speed and acceleration but not much else, hence why he has made only three Premiership starts for Sale in two years at the club. John O'Donnell; a 22 year-old alternating his time between the Jets and the Sevens circuit and who is yet to make his senior debut. The aforementioned Edwards; a 27 year-old specialist Sevens player whose experience playing the 15-man game amounts to a string of appearances for Rosslyn Park in National League 1 last season and Tim Jeffers; arguably the pick of the bunch, a soon to be 21 year-old capable of playing either at wing or fullback who impressed during the pre-season sevens although he to is yet to turn out for the Sale first team.
Now do any of those players come close to offering what Addison and Arscott offer the Sale first team? Of course not. You can make the argument that Brady is not too far off their level, and whilst its true that at only 24 (with over 100 appearances already) there is some potential and experience for Brady to utilise as part of the first team. However Brady's lack of a world-class skill in any defined area of the game makes his ceiling that much lower than say Addison, who excels as a tackler, making line breaks and who can also kick very well tactically.
What is especially worrying however is that Addison's fragility and carefully repaired physique having suffered two career-threatening knee and back injuries means that a half-season trip to the treatment table is unfortunately never further away for Addison than a foot caught on a bobble on the pitch. As mercurially talented as Addison is (he'd be playing for England now if he could've stayed injury free) that fragility unfortunately means that he simply cannot be relied upon to be available to play week-in, week-out at the highest level. Furthermore, the failure to replace Italian fullback Luke McLean also means that Sale's other first-choice winger in Tom Arscott is the only other option Sale can comfortably roll out at 15 should injury or loss of form befall incumbent Mike Haley. There are simply too many variables that could occur for the Sale coaching brass and fans to believe Sale's optimum back-three of Addison, Arscott and Haley will be available to play every week this season (and thats before even mentioning burnout and fatigue).
In truth, winger is currently the weakest position in the Sale Sharks squad (so long as Brian Mujati one day, finally, maybe gets confirmed as another Tighthead Prop to add to the team). Although Sale's second row should still be viewed with some trepidation, the addition of Bryn Evans to the experienced pairing of Jonathan Mills and Andrei Ostrikov, and the promotion of England U18s and likely U20s representative George Nott means the 'donkey row' should theoretically be able to hold up, especially when the option of moving Josh Beaumont forward from the backrow is factored in. (Apparently Vilhami Fihaki played very well on Sunday suggesting that he could very well play a bigger role in relief of Beaumont at No.8 this season for Sale).
Indeed, if Sale are to make a big post-world cup recruitment splash as has been furiously implied over summer, it has to be to address the lack of options on their wings. I'm not asking for Julian Savea. Arscott and Addison are a deadly try-scoring pair with a combined skillset able to cover anything thrown at them in this year's Premiership. They're fine as Sale's go-top pairing. Tom Brady is fine as a fourth option. But what Sale really lack is another winger, capable of rotating and substituting for Arscott/Addison/whoever every other week whatever the situation, with the game-changing nous to ensure Sale have some lethal attacking options for Danny Cipriani to feed every week and perhaps some defensive ability and responsibility thrown in for good measure.
I look at Worcester's signing of Cooper Vuna, or Newcastle's recruitment of Sinoti Sinoti and I can't help but think that's the baseline quality of player Sale should be looking to add as some genuine competition for Addison and Arscott. I even wonder with the players departing Carrington and the smaller-scale replacements Sale have opted for in the last nine months, could there possibly be some money available to aim even higher? I don't know. In truth, I don't know exactly who Sale could lure to the North-West or the budget they have available to do so.
But I do know if Sale are serious about being a top-six side again this season, the lack of quality behind Tom and Will needs addressing. And I also know that bringing Nev Edwards onboard isn't the solution.
I'll confess that when I first saw the new Sale Sharks home kit for the 2015-16 season through the promotional image released on the official club website, I was...underwhelmed. In hindsight perhaps it was the slightly over-edited feel to that promotional picture (as seen above), which seems to overemphasise the white 'sponsor strip' on the shirt's chest and diminish the contrast between the light blue found on the shoulder and sides and the navy blue of the rest of the shirt.
But then the real pictures began to roll in:
I hope the surprisingly stark difference between the marketing and advertising materials and what the players will actually be wearing on the pitch this season is now a bit more obvious as it became to me earlier this morning.
And now that we've seen what the kit really looks like? - I'm a huge fan.
Is it as good-looking a kit as the hoop-and-fin design Sale have worn for the past two seasons? No, but then again that kit might have been the best-designed Sale have had since they adopted the 'Sharks' moniker in 2001 so to directly compare the two is a little unfair. But with this new kit, there are lots of small details, tweaks and subtle updates that really make it standout as one of the better kits around the Premiership this season.
The most important aspect design-wise, is of course the shirt. A self-confessed update and homage to the kit Sale wore 10 years ago to their only Premiership triumph to date, the shirt does a great job of incorporating the hoop/stripe heritage of the Sharks/Sale FC albeit with slimmer stripes giving it a slightly more modern and sleeker look, whilst the (now much more apparent) contrast between the baby blue of the shirt's shoulders and sides with the navy 'body' of the shirt a great-looking tribute to the most prominent design feature of the 2005-06 kit as seen below:
And whilst it would have been nice to see that baby-blue designed to match the historic kit's vertical styling, I understand the curved chest design of the Iconix™ shirts produced by Samurai Sportswear meant that was probably not possible to implement.
Overall regarding the front of the shirt, the stripes look great, the colours work well and the white sponsor strip is a lot less prominent than first thought and makes a nice dividing line between the shirt's design and the compulsory workdmarks and logos that adorn every modern kit. It would have been nice to perhaps have had the striped design extend to the full body of the kit rather than just the bottom 3/5ths but there is always the danger that it would make the shirt appear too cluttered, which is the last thing a fashionable rugby kit should be.
However its the back of the shirt which really elevates Sale's design choice.
Obviously, in-game it will be a lot more cluttered than the front of the shirt with sponsors (as seen here from the 'competition shirt' from the club's store), but ignoring that momentarily, the decision to have the white horizontal stripes extend all the way to the back of the neck is a masterstroke that adds another layer of depth to the shirt's overall look and feel that, at the same time, makes the contrast with the shoulders that bit more prominent and eye-catching.
The delightfully simple 1861 Shark Fin crest returns on the nape of the neck, once again a great way of highlighting the club's 150-plus year history and having the horizontal stripes pass through the 'patch' make it so much more understated and natural than having it separated by its own white box. Another great design choice.
Personally I've never been a big fan of the Samurai/Sale shorts worn for the previous two season; the seemingly random shapes of lighter blue and white on the navy background and sporadic white lines didn't seem very uniform when compared with the rest of the previous Sale home kit.
This year Samurai have toned things down slightly, replacing the weird blue pentagon shape with a simple rectangle and a smaller white rectangle at the bottom and dispensing with the white outlines for a much more simplistic look. They look better than the last kit but I still don't know if the additional colours are necessary with navy shorts. Is there anything else to say?
For an item like socks, simplicity is key. Same shade of navy for the primary colour, same shade of white, same thickness and same frequency of the horizontal lines across the socks all to match the shirt and the same lighter blue contrast at the top. Executed well, they keep things simple and make the uniformity of the new kit obvious and apparent as good socks should do.
Without overanalysing every single shade and stripe of the new kit, the smaller, less obvious design features of the new kit are really what make it work. The shirt in particular plays the customary homage to Sale's heritage with some neat design choices that simultaneously keep it feeling fresh and modern with the added bonus of celebrating the 10-year anniversary of Sale's only Premiership title with some mirroring of the kit they wore that famous day in 2006. The shorts and socks have also been simplified and give the kit a nice sense of consistency.
One feels the limitations of Samurai's Iconix™ template perhaps hold the shirt back from the 'iconic' category and even if less prominent than originally thought, the white MBNA sponsor strip is such a sharp contrast to the rest of the shirt that it definitely feels obtrusive especially as it limits the horizontal striping to only 3/5ths of the front of the shirt which I know will not be the most popular of choices. However sponsorship is a big part of the modern game and therefore perhaps unavoidable so perhaps I shouldn't mark it down too harshly for that.
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The official announcement of England's squad for the 2015 Rugby World Cup came and went last Thursday afternoon and to the shock of nobody not living under a technological rock, Sale's own Danny Cipriani did not make the cut.
I could sit and write a detailed argument as to why Cipriani should have in fact been included - and I am inclined to believe the vast majority of the rugby-following world would agree with me - but what use is there in that when the decision has already been made by Stuart Lancaster? No, instead it will suffice to say that for me personally, Cipriani should have been included in England's World Cup plans without a shadow of a doubt. He is the third-best fly-half in the country behind George Ford and Owen Farrell both of whom I feel are superior all-round players making Lancaster's inclusion of them a logical choice, but Cipriani's unique game-changing ability is a trait unmatched by any of his English counterparts (and some would argue by anybody in world rugby) and when will there be a better to unleash Cipriani's maverick creativity than down by a score with fifteen minutes left in a World Cup semi-final?
Including Cipriani in his World Cup squad would have given Stuart Lancaster and co. an ace up their sleeve nobody else in the World could home to match; the type of dynamic, forward-thinking impact sub you could argue a team truly capable of winning a World Cup in all conditions and situations requires to keep around for a moment of individual brilliance.
However Cipriani's omission, when viewed through the right lens, is understandable. Cipriani's high risk/reward approach is a stark contrast to Stuart Lancaster's favoured pragmatic approach to winning rugby games and all indications suggests Lancaster is comfortable with having Bath stawlart George Ford as his primary playmaker, which depending on how you view Ford's ability to create and work as a central pivot in an English attack can be seen as a reasonable expectation to hold. Is Ford as capable of that individual moment of brilliance as Cipriani? No, but Ford is a damn good game-changer in his own right and his ability to win England games on a whim at the World Cup should not be forgotten amidst the pitchfork-gathering vis-a-vis Cipriani.
The issues begin to emerge if George Ford struggles at the World Cup and Owen Farrell is the creative force expected to turn a game on its head for England off the bench (especially worrying since Kyle Eastmond also didn't make the cut) but for the most part, a 1-2 punch of Ford and Farrell is perfectly capable of winning a World Cup for England. Yes Cipriani would have rounded out the group to form arguably the most skilled trio of fly-halves in any country's World Cup squad but there's enough ability between the Bath and Saracens fly-halves to make England not regret omitting Cipriani. I would even argue that Cipriani wasn't the biggest omission from the final culling of the England squad! (How Dave Attwood didn't make the final 31 is beyond belief).
But there is a silver lining for fans of Cipriani and England. There is absolutely no doubt that should injury befall either of England's two fly-halves (or even possibly one of Mike Brown or Alex Goode at fullback) Cipriani will be first in line for a callup. And injuries do happen. It would also be worthwhile to not forget the heroic tale of Stephen Donald, the 2011 World Cup winning fly-half for New Zealnd who made his first appearance of the tournament as a replacement for Aaron Cruden in the first half of the World Cup final. Anything can happen in sport, don't rule out Cipriani from making an impact at the World Cup yet.
However SharkTankRugby is a website whose main focus is domestic, not international rugby. So what does Cipriani's omission mean for his club, Sale Sharks?
The main takeaway from this apparent end to the Cipriani-World Cup saga is that, barring a late callup as injury cover to the England set-up, Sale have Cipriani back for the first few weeks of the season which before now, they were preparing for without their talisman.
And what are the fixtures Sale now have their first-choice fly-half available for? Only Saracens away, Worcester at home and Northampton at home.
Getting Cipriani back for the first few weeks of the season whilst many of the Premiership's top-tier internationals are away is HUGE.
Sale faltered badly down the stretch last season which saw them ultimately miss out on a top-six place by a sizeable margin, however its also worth remembering that Sale also got off to a terrible start to the season winning only two out of their first six games.
I have bemoaned Sale's lack of investment and strengthening over the summer ad nauseum, but what it comes down to practically is that if Sale hope to be a team with a legitimate chance of securing a top-six finish this season, getting off to a fast start and racking up early season wins is extremely important.
Indeed playing Saracens, Northampton (and even Harlequins on 6th November if there English contigent are not back) in the season's opening four weeks is something of a blessing in disguise for Sale - when better to face such juggernauts of the English game than when they are missing half their squads to international duty.
And as much as I'd like to believe Sale without Cipriani, Leota, Ioane and Mackenzie (their own World Cup representatives) would be able to somehow take down Saracens at the Allianz and then follow it up with another coup at home against a weary Saints side with two abrasive, hard-fought, victories that whilst ugly, secure Sale 8 points they would have otherwise struggled to win should both sides be at full strength, Sale having their, for want of a better word, star player back in the fold is a huge boost. Travelling down to the Allianz and playing smash-and-grab against a much stronger Saracens side is difficult enough, but having the unique, world-class talents of Cipriani that I alluded to earlier makes a fast start to the season that bit more possible.
Who is to say we've seen the last of Cipriani in an England shirt? I'll admit I have no idea how Lancaster's England will fare at the World Cup but there are still a multiple of possibilities that could conspire to see Cipriani back wearing the Red Rose. What if Lancaster enters 2016 knowing a Six Nations win offer him job security after a disappointing finish to the World Cup? Rather than hasten the transition to the next wave of English players with a view to the 2019 World Cup in Japan, could Lancaster instead pick the strongest squad at his disposal including Cipriani whose half-season form for a (hopefully) high-flying Sale warrants inclusion? What if a less risk-averse coach has replaced Lancaster and is excited to give Cipriani a shot?
Ultimately there is no telling what may happen in the future with Cipriani and England. Whilst it is fun to speculate, it is perhaps more appropriate to focus now on what we do know. As of this moment, Cipriani is not with England preparing for the World Cup. This is bad news for England but not critical to their World Cup chances despite the hyperbole being thrown around by many aggrieved fans of both club and country. It is however great news for Sale, who have the face of the club back for a brutal start to the season.
I will end on a thought that hopefully prompts discussion rather than panic. In February of this year, Danny Cipriani penned a new two-year deal with the club, ostensibly rejecting interest from Toulon. A positive way of looking at it is: if Cipriani saw the 2015 World Cup as his last chance to appear for his nation, why would he have signed a two-year deal as opposed to a single-season contract? Additionally this isn't a Richie Gray situation, Sale are getting great performances out of their marque player and have no intention (I believe) are parting ways prematurely. But conversely, if it becomes clear the England door is now permanently closed to Cipriani after the World Cup, is there anything left for the 28 year-old in Manchester (or indeed England) to stop him chasing the mega-riches that come with playing in France?
For more news, opinions and analysis you can follow SharkTankRugby on Twitter here. You can also find Lewis Hughes/SharkTankRugby on Instagram here. He promises there will be less photos of Mexican eateries and vinyl records when the rugby season starts again.