No-one will ever complain that following Sale Sharks is dull and uninteresting.
Fresh off a shock 13-26 defeat to Gloucester at the usually-impenetrable AJ Bell Stadium, Sale stormed out to a 17-5 lead thanks to a very well-taken Will Addison brace, promptly conceded 26 unanswered points to find themselves down 31-17 with half an hour to go before two pushover tries from Neil Briggs and Halani Aulika ensured that after 80 minutes played and 68 points scored, Sale and Worcester finished the Sixways clash tied 34 apiece.
From one perspective, it is disappointing that Sale, for the second consecutive season, have failed to travel down to Sixways and beat a Worcester team that, with all due respect, appeared destined for another 10th-12th place finish this season. Last week's defeat made it apparent that Sale had unachieved mightily to start the season given their relatively gentle fixture list through three rounds and Saturday's game will have been earmarked as a potential momentum-builder especially given Worcester's winless start to 2016-17.
The long and short of it is that if Sale are serious about repeating their top-six finish again this season, game's like Saturday's are absolute must-wins. To have failed in this regard, especially after such a barnstorming opening thirty minutes, is bitterly disappointing.
The other position to adopt however - and this is largely the one yours truly has taken - is that picking up three points (two for a draw, one for the four-try bonus point) away at any side in the Premiership is a, if not ideal, pretty strong result, especially given the fourteen points deficit that was surmounted in the game's final quarter. Yes, Worcester are winless and this is a game Sale should have won, but paradoxically it is also a game they should have lost. A draw was probably the fairest of outcomes.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the game however is the impact of AJ MacGinty who played the entire 80 minutes at fly-half. In comparison to last season's 31-23 loss at the same ground, Sale's fly-half on the day was Danny Cipriani who went one-for-five from the tee and cost Sale a valuable losing bonus point - and potentially a win had they scored another try - with a horrendously rushed conversion attempt with just over a minute remaining in the game the particular lowlight of an abysmal kicking display.
To bring in MacGinty then, the Irish-cum-American number 10 produced a display the polar opposite to Cipriani's effort seven months ago, going a perfect six-for-six at attempts on goal including a couple of superb touchline efforts - had he missed even one, Sale would have travelled home with a single point rather than three.
That's not to say Sale's eventual three-point haul is down solely to MacGinty's boot; Addison's opportunism and the abrasive second-half display from the Sale forwards were just as integral to the result, but it is fascinating to see in MacGinty's first real outing as Sale's go-to playmaker (disregarding his first-half appearance against Newcastle in which he saw the ball maybe three times) the difference that having a metronomical kicker can make.
MacGinty's distribution on the day was hardly Cipriani-esque - and it is clear that is an area where Sale will see somewhat of a downgrade - but the simple fact is that for all of Cipriani's mercurial ability he was and is one of the worst percentage kickers in the Premiership and that if he started over MacGinty on Saturday, this is not a game Sale would have got three points out of.
Things are slowly beginning to click for Sale after a sputtering start to the season. The result at Sixways wasn't ideal but aside from a dire twenty-minute period either side of half-time, there is plenty to be encouraged about heading into next week of which MacGinty must take centre stage.
Next up is a dangerous-looking Leicester Tigers side that just hung 34 points on Bath. If the Sharks continue to improve at their current rate, we shouldn't see a repeat of the Gloucester game.
Honourable mentions: Neil Briggs, David Seymour
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Despite a relatively gentle start to the season, Sale Sharks, with only a solitary win over Harlequins a fortnight ago to their name after three rounds, have, it is fair to say, stumbled out of the gate in 2016-17.
With the workmanlike victory over Quins sandwiched between two frankly unacceptable defeats to Newcastle (away) and Gloucester (home), Sale's top-four / top-six aspirations are in danger of already becoming unattainable, especially should they lose away to Worcester on Saturday; a fixture that could become a demarcation point for when Sale resigned themselves to a lower mid-table seeding.
And whilst the logical argument in response to this early-season doom-mongering will be "it's only been three games" - and that is a fair argument - it is important to note that Newcastle and Worcester away, along with Harlequins and Gloucester at home are fixtures against mid-to-lower table opposition that Sale should be expected to win, especially if the pre-season rhetoric of a top-four push is to be fulfilled.
It is for this reason why the start to the season has been so disappointing. Let's not mince words here; Sale should be expected to win no more than a handful of away games at most per season. Listen to any interview conducted by Steve Diamond in the past three seasons and you'll hear a coach explicitily stating that the Sharks under his regime focus predominately on winning all their home fixtures and trying to sneak a couple of away wins here and there. An outdated approach, perhaps but it is the one Sale have adopted.
Sale, barring a miracle, are not going to beat Saracens at the Allianz. Or Wasps at The Ricoh. They're probably not even going to beat Harlequins at The Stoop or Gloucester at Kingsholm such is the importance of home advantage in the modern Premiership. So when they fail to pick up a valuable away win at Newcastle and are beaten in resounding fashion by Gloucester at "Fortress AJ Bell", alarm bells should be ringing.
So where has it all gone wrong for Sale so far? The answer lies in the backline.
Sale's lacklustre start to the season has been characterised largely by an impotent attack and a misfiring backline. Five tries in three games is not a strike rate worthy of a play-off team, there are no two ways about it.
More worryingly however has been the torpid approach brought to the opening three fixtures of the season. Whilst Diamond has emphasised an even more extreme forwards-heavy approach than seen in recent years, all three sides faced have responded in resolute fashion - in short, Sale's lauded 'monster pack' haven't bullied anyone off the park yet.
But complete pack dominance isn't absolutely essential for Sale to win their fixtures. If anything, the Sharks' forwards have always offered at the very least equality in that area of the field and something of a platform to attack; it's the backline which has failed to produce.
The problems in this area are obvious; Tom Arscott (ACL) and Mike Haley (Shoulder), two integral parts of the Sale backline have missed the start of the season through long-term injury. Intriguing new signing Josh Charnley is still playing in Super League with Wigan Warriors. Peter Stringer nearly lost his front-teeth following a concussive hit in pre-season training and only returned in the second half last week against Gloucester. Inside centres Sam Tuitupou and Mark Jennings are both out indefinitely.
Most sides would struggle with the loss of three of their starting backs and a number of their rotation options but Sale's problems have been compounded with injury to both of their new fly-halves; AJ MacGinty - the Danny Cipriani replacement - has only played forty minutes so far this season and whilst understudy Dan Mugford has rose magnificently to the occasion since, he also went down with a nasty leg injury against Gloucester that ruled him ineffective for the rest of that game.
Sale's struggles therefore are completely understandable faced with such a disruptive start to the season, but that shouldn't excuse the complete lack of direction evident against Newcastle, Harlequins and Gloucester. After all, Arscott, Haley, Charnley and even Stringer's absences were not unknown to the coaching staff before the start of the season.
Yet Diamond - who I have lauded in recent years for drastically overachieving with the thinnest squad in the league - is yet to show the tactical nous to combat the unfortunate position Sale have found themselves in to start the season. Diamond's answer to a decimated backline was to place even more emphasis on the Sale pack - but teams have wised up to the Sharks' historic strength following three seasons of near-indestructibility, just look at last week's game which saw Gloucester successfully repel Sale's rolling maul five times in the first half.
The Importance of Mike Haley
One player I do not believe has received enough attention in recent weeks is Mike Haley. Haley may seem like a curious choice to shine the spotlight on given he hasn't played since dislocating his shoulder against South Africa whilst on tour with the Saxons in June. But it is only now, with the 22-year-old unavailable, that we are beginning to see the importance of his role in the Sale first team.
Byron McGuigan, the Namibian fullback brought in this season to aid Sale's backline depth, has not played poorly by any stretch. McGuigan has been solid in defence, abrasive when on the ball and his steady form is even more impressive given he only joined the team at the end of July.
However, having watched the farcical display on Friday that saw Mike Phillips moved to fly-half and Will Addison become the chief orchestrator of the backline due to the lack of a recognised fly-half option on the replacements bench, it became clear that Sale are sorely missing Haley's unique blend of skills that have seen him emerge as one of the standout fullbacks in the league after only two full seasons.
Although he's far from a typical fly-half, Haley's vision, tactical awareness and ability to break the line himself would have been the perfect antidote to Sale's attacking ills against Gloucester, especially as it would have stopped Will Addison receiving the ball in the middle of the pitch and attempt to create something, quite literally out of nothing, against a keyed-in Gloucester defence that could collapse around him.
One of the more intriguing trends over the last year has been that Haley has increasingly come into the line to act as the first receiver and the move's primary playmaker - usually on the opposite side to Cipriani awaiting the ball in a similar position. With Cipriani now in Coventry and questions marks around the long-term implications of MacGinty and Mugford's early-season injury struggles, Haley's return at the end of September / early October could very quickly serve as the catalyst for a turnaround in the Sharks' fortunes.
A Resolution on the Horizon
To return to the titular question, how can Sale fix their floundering backline, the answer unfortunately is not cut-and-dry.
Whilst acknowledging Sale's slow start to the season has been down to an attacking stratagem gone awry which in turn is the result of some simply horrendous injury luck, the resolution to Sale's backline problems is...well to wait.
MacGinty is back in training this week - Mugford also. Haley and Arscott are scheduled to be back in approximately two weeks. Charnley will arrive sometime around December. The cavalry as it were are on their way and it is now up to Sale - assembled as they currently are - to grind out a win or two before they return to full strength.
There are some encouraging signs. 19-year-old Paolo Odogwu signed from Leicester Tigers this summer has made a noticeable impact in his two starts so far (five defenders beaten against Gloucester). Will Addison has taken the added emphasis on his playmaking (and goal-kicking) skills in his stride and looks as dangerous and incisive as he did all of last season. After two anonymous showings to open the year Sam James - another player whose form is increasingly vital to the success of the Sale side - produced a sterling performance on Friday. In the same game we finally saw the Sale backline run set plays in consecutive sets for the first time this season. Granted, they were predominately simple switch plays whose overuse meant Gloucester could comfortable sit-off the initial receiver and wait for the ball to be moved wide, but considering the abysmal penetration displayed against Newcastle and to an extent against Harlequins (Odogwu and Addison aside), Diamond and Paul Deacon have at least recognised the necessity of throwing the ball around, even without some of their first-choice players.
Sale Sharks, especially under Diamond's watchful eye, are always going to be a forwards-orientated team and the start to the 2016-17 season has emphasised that emphatically. But if Sale want to avoid having their Premiership campaign derailed before it even leaves the station it is now up to Diamond, Deacon, and the collective backs division to find a way to finally click and bring back some of the scintillating free-flowing rugby that brought the crowds to their feet last season. And if it doesn't start against Worcester, it could be a long winter.
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In the ever-competitive Aviva Premiership it is rare that a game gets decided conclusively in only the second minute.
But after Sale starting fly-half Dan Mugford sustained a nasty fall which would ultimately render him a non-factor for the rest of the game, the advantage was Gloucester's. To their credit, they never looked back.
A bizarre decision by Sale Director of Rugby Steve Diamond to not include a recognised fly-half on his replacements bench would ultimately cost Sale dearly, as the Sharks, with Mike Phillips at fly-half and winger Will Addison handling kicking duties, fell 13-26 on Friday night to Gloucester Rugby.
With Mugford noticeably hobbling from play-to-play and unable to kick at goal with his usual gusto (he was 0-2 in the first-half), the role of goal-kicker fell to the relatively untested boot of Will Addison, who for all his enthusiasm would ultimately prove to be a far from a suitable stand-in for the crocked Mugford who was eventually replaced midway into the second half.
Scoreline aside the game was deceptively close, Sale enjoying the lion's share of both possession and territory in the first-half only to find Gloucester devastatingly clinical in response; for all of Sale's time on the ball and switch plays along the backline, Gloucester's defensive epitomised the bend-but-don't-break philosophy whilst their rolling maul defence was some of the best I've ever witnessed in rugby, period (they stopped Sale on five consecutive attempts during the first forty). The result was Sale down 17-8 at the break, Sam James' powerful finish in the corner offset by two scything Gloucester scores from John Afoa and the perpetually dangerous Charlie Sharples.
It only got worse from there. In truth, it was apparent Diamond planned to utilise outside centre James as an emergency fly-half backup (he spent some time there whilst playing for Wilmslow high-school) should anything befall Mugford, however that plan was foiled when James himself was forced off the pitch after 50-something minutes with a thigh injury of his own. Thus Mike Phillips slid across the half-backs to number 10 (possibly for the first and only time in his career).
Despite Sale finally cracking the Gloucester goal-line defence on 54 minutes with Cameron Neild the beneficiary of the tireless work produced by the Sale pack to bring the scores to 18-13, Addison's miss of a relatively simple conversion attempt served as blood in the water (pun possibly intended) for the Cherry-and-Whites. With no fly-half to dictate play and continue the fightback, Gloucester, led by an impeccable Greig Laidlaw, took full advantage of Sale's lack of direction, killing the game off with a series of superb territorial plays that saw Laidlaw feast upon the gluttony of errors Sale produced as a result of their collective panic. Laidlaw kicked three penalties in the game's final quarter and that was that - Sale bereft of both a healthy fly-half and even a consolatory losing bonus point.
With the loss Sale slip to 7th in the table as of 22:42 Friday night, with the evening's victors leapfrogging the Sharks into 4th. A pivotal clash away to Worcester next Saturday now awaits a Sale side whose tumultuous start to their 2016-17 season continued in earnest at their no-longer impenetrable fortress.
Worcester at Sixways next week. Five points out of three games. A relegation battle (at this admittedly extremely early stage) is looking more feasible than a sustained run for the play-offs. Time to turn it around.
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A return to Friday night rugby. And a return to winning ways.
Sale Sharks bounced back from their lamentable start to the season with an abrasive, grinding and, well, distinctly Sale performance, overturning Harlequins 19-10 to kickstart their 2016-17 Premiership campaign and begin anew their quest for a perfect domestic home record.
Despite losing stalwart flanker TJ Ioane to a nasty head/neck injury in the game's opening minute, Sale produced a composed and, when required, clinical performance behind Dan Mugford's fourteen point haul and David Seymour's second-half try to dispatch a torpid Harlequins side whom, given their star-studded cadre, massively underwhelmed.
With Mugford - a late insertion into the starting lineup due to AJ MacGinty's failed fitness test - producing an inspired kicking performance (a perfect five-for-five from the tee) to ensure Sale maintained a healthy lead for the majority of the eighty minutes, the Sharks survived a late first-half surge from Harlequins and a yellow-card to Jonathan Mills to ultimately preserve their first victory of the season, a result, that after Saturday's results, currently sees Sale up to 4th in the Premiership table.
And although neither side set the AJ Bell alight with consistent displays of dynamic attacking rugby on Friday night, Sale at least showed a far more spirited and varied offense than that exhibited last week at Kingston Park; a performance that augers well for the rest of the season, beginning next Friday against a Gloucester side who have been defined by inconsistency in the season's opening two rounds.
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After arguably the most exciting summer in Sale Sharks history that saw the long-term financial security of the club confirmed, a multiplicity of the squad's most important players re-signed to long-term contracts and rhetoric of challenging for the top-four bandied around almost ad nauseum, the latest era in Sale Rugby's long and illustrious history began with, well, a dud on Friday night as the Sharks crashed to a surprise 19-17 defeat at Kingston Park.
That victory was denied to Sale only by Dan Mugford pulling wide the game-winning final kick of the game does not represent an accurate summary of the game - in truth, had Mugford made the kick, it would have been an unfair result for both sides.
Whilst Newcastle executed to perfection a set game-plan that stymied Sale's bruising pack and fully utilised the devastating wing combination of Sinoti Sinoti and Verniki Goneva, the Sharks were listless and frequently bereft of ideas.
Ultimately, this was where the game was lost for Sale. Whilst Newcastle offered dynamism in attack and tenacity in defence (they successfully repelled nearly 30 Sale phases in their own 22 at the end of the first-half), Sale's entire gameplan revolved around attempting to out-muscle the opposition up front, and when that failed their inability to conjure up an alternative was, frankly, embarrassing.
To gain an understanding of how unimaginative Sale's attacking stratagem was, it took nearly 35 minutes before AJ MacGinty had the opportunity to run a set-backs move. 35 minutes. The situation was not helped by Sale's seeming unwillingness to run the ball back from deep when presented the opportunity a number of times early in the first half; I counted six occasions within the opening half-an-hour where possession was aimlessly kicked back to Newcastle under relatively little pressure.
The introduction of Dan Mugford for the second-half (as an injury replacement for MacGinty) proved to be something of a turning point, the 24-year-old finally breathing life into a torpid Sale offense with the ex-Nottingham man helping to orchestrate both of Sale's tries (Leota and McGuigan), but on the day it was Newcastle who appeared to be the side better-placed to mount a prospective top-four assault this season.
Sale did not leave Kingston Park empty-handed, their battling second-half display giving them a piecemeal consolation in the form of a losing bonus point, but there is no denying that this has to be seen as a bitterly disappointingly result. In recent years Newcastle has been one of the few grounds where Sale have enjoyed some away success and if the talk of a consistent push for the top-four is to transpire, fixtures like Friday's are absolute must-wins. The season is still nascent, of course, but one can't help but feel Sale have already blown a massive opportunity to establish themselves in the top-half of the table.
Sale next return to action on Friday 9th against Harlequins in their first home game of the season. Expect to see the squad rotated emphatically in the hopes of avoiding a similar disappointing result.
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After three long, arduous, rugby-less months, tomorrow (Friday) finally marks the return of Premiership rugby as Sale travel to Newcastle for a Northern curtain raiser. But before the season proper gets underway, there's still time for a final summer-time mailbag as we run a cursory eye over Sale Sharks ahead of their 2016-17 campaign.
With this new-look Sale squad yet to play a single minute of meaningful rugby this is of course, nigh on impossible to answer. But from the buzz around Carrington and the limited pre-season action available to dissect I think this question has two possible answers.
The first is AJ MacGinty. Everybody I've spoken to at Sale has waxed lyrical about the American fly-half since he joined up with the squad in July, and although he's unlikely to replicate the attacking genius that his predecessor Danny Cipriani spoiled us with, MacGinty's contrasting style of play which in truth, better suits Sale's collective abrasive, hard-nosed approach, along with his probable superior kicking percentages make him an obvious candidate to emerge as a star signing.
My other suggestion is Josh Charnley. In a summer where Sale lost two of their most prestigious 'star' talents in Cipriani and Tommy Taylor and instead opted to focus mainly on building squad depth and affording the coaching staff a plethora of options at each position, Charnley stands out as the recruit with the most decisive game-changing ability. I'm not expecting Charnley to join up with the squad at Christmas and immediately become Chris Ashton 2.0 but with the added depth around him offering a platform to shine, Charnley could rapidly emerge as Sale's newest star attraction.
1. Saracens - the best team in Europe last season and they haven't suffered any meaningful subtractions. Should reign supreme again.
2. Leicester - Added some world-class backline talent to go with a diverse and talented pack. Could make the biggest jump in the League this season.
4. Wasps - Charles Piutau and George Smith were the Premiership's two biggest loses over the summer and signing a second backline won't cover some subtantial defensive frailities.
6. Sale - A realistic prediction. Another top-six finish this season combined with some additional investment and Sale will be back in the top-four with a season.
10. Newcastle - Quietly amassed an intriguing collection of players. Return of Sinoti Sinoti will be huge.
11. Worcester - Loss of Dean Ryan so close to the new season will impede any potential progress up the table.
12. Bristol - For all their money, haven't made enough of a splash over the summer to suggest they're definitely avoiding the drop.
Sale's weakest area is probably the second row and I'm thinking long-term. Let's have Maro Itoje to anchor the scrum for the next 15 years.
If the new ownership can back up their ambitious plans with a ready supply of cash to lure the world-class quality in positions that the academy cannot produce, Sale could very well be back in the top-four next season and challenging for the title again by 2018-19. But that's in a perfect world. Steady improvement season-on-season above and beyond the European qualification benchmark (6th to 5th to 4th etc.) is what the focus should be for the next two or three seasons.
1. Mike Haley - impressed for the Saxons in an area where England are currently weak.
2. Josh Beaumont - inclusion in the Six Nations squad suggests his time is close.
3. Sam James
4. Tommy Taylor
5. Ross Harrison
6. Cameron Neild - needs a couple of seasons in a fixed position at club level before international recognition beckons.
7. Will Addison - A victim of England's depth on the wings.
8.Danny Cipriani - Unfortunately, with his international isolation continuing under Eddie Jones, I think his time has passed.
Top-six again this year would, in my mind at least, be another fantastic achievement given the individual losses sustained earlier this year. A second consecutive year of Champions Cup Rugby would also put Sale in a fantastic position to really push up the table in 2017-18 and helped to attract a big name or two to take them to the next level
Despite all the positivity surrounding the surprise pre-emptive extensions of Mike Haley, Josh Beaumont, Cameron Neild etc. over the last month or so the silence surrounding Will Addison would appear to be ominous. After all, why would Addison not have bought in to the same vision that has enticed so many of his fellow English stalwarts?
However it is worth remembering what a unique situation this is for all parties. Last season, with Addison out of contract at the end of the year, it took until February - six weeks after the opening of the so-called 'transfer window' - before the Cumbrian penned a new deal. In addition the length of the extension was not disclosed by either player nor club and whilst most of my pessimistic Shark-supporting brethren took this to mean he had only signed on for one additional season (2016-17) it could very well emerge he is actually under contract for longer (akin to Andrei Ostrikov a few years ago) thus alleviating any pressure on signing the 24-year-old to a long-term deal even before the newest season has even begun.
That said, Addison's omission from the multiplicity of August extensions is a touch surprising given his apparent importance to the club, but let's not forget just how early on in the season it yet remains. Ross Harrison - another member of Sale's young English contingent - is likewise yet to commit his long-term future to Sale. Perhaps negotiations are being delayed to sustain a steady supply of positive news and soundbites, or perhaps Dimes and co. are reluctant to hand Addison a three-year, big-money deal given his tumultuous and unfortunate injury history and want to see him remain able to maintain his fitness and form as he did to such pleasing effect last season. The time to panic is not yet at hand.