Sale begin their LV Cup campaign at the AJ Bell stadium tomorrow afternoon, looking to make it two-out-of-two against Wasps whom they beat 25-14 less than four weeks ago.
Here's three things to look out for:
Ross Harrison as a tighthead
The MEN's Neil Leigh elucidated this better than I can but the long and short of it is this: with no options on the market, Ross Harrison looks set to be the solution for Sale's lack of depth at tighthead with a conversion to the position imminent. In limited game-time at the number 3 position, Harrison has looked steady and a lot more proficient than either Eifon Lewis-Roberts or Alberto Di Marchi. Also working in Harrison's favour is that internationally, England's weakest position is tighthead by a country mile and if Harrison has legitimate EPS aspirations a conversion may serve in his best interests.
Vilhami Fihaki finally gets a starting berth
As I have spent seemingly the entire season so far advocating, Tongan international Vilhami Fihaki finally gets a chance to start for Sale at No.8. What will be most interesting is to see how his play differs from Mark Easter, considering Easter's defensive security and Fihaki's more dynamic attacking ability. A good performance from Fihaki at the base of the scrum should afford him greater opportunities in the squad later in the season.
How seriously are Sale taking the LV this season?
From the announced lineup for tomorrow's game, it would appear Sale are indeed taking the competition seriously with a good mix of both veteran experience and youthfulness in the team whilst allowing returning first-team players such as Luke McLean and Dan Braid to gain match fitness for Premiership fixtures next month. With a less-than-satisfacotry start to the domestic season and European elimination at the first hurdle looking likely, are Sale right to prioritise the LV? Personally I think so. A good indicator of Sale's ambitions will be in the decisions Steve Diamond makes throughout the game. Will half the first team go off after 60 minutes scoreline be damned or will it be played in the same manner as a league or european game? Here's hoping the later.
Sale team: McLean, MacKenzie, Forsyth, Tuitupou, Ingall, Ford, Cliff, Di Marchi, Jones, Harrison, Ostrikov, Beaumont, Easter, Braid, Fihaki.
Prediction: Sale Sharks 24 - Wasps 16
52 minutes into Sunday's Sale-Clermont game a curious substitution occurred. Sale's No.8 Mark Easter was substituted for returning captain Dan Braid, an openside flanker. What was most curious however was that Sale already had two flankers on the field in Magnus Lund and David Seymour and Steve Diamond opted to move Lund to No.8, a position most unfamiliar for someone who has spent his ten-year career predominately playing as either a 6 or 7.
The final 28 minutes of a game in which Sale were well and truly beaten by one of the most dominant teams in French rugby and had a pack receding at a rapid rate every time play stopped for a scrum is not the best opportunity for Magnus Lund to showcase his abilities as a No.8 but Diamond's decision to utilise "Maggie" in that role was something that struck a chord with me, hence this article. Could Magnus Lund be the solution for Sale's black hole of production at No.8 so far this season?
Currently Sale's starting No.8 is Mark Easter, a player who is excellent defensively with an incredible enthusiasm and workrate but who is below-par in most other aspects, namely as a ball-carrier, unable to break through tackles or spot defensive gaps to surge through. Mark Easter is a defensive open-side flanker in a team filled with them and he offers nothing with ball-in-hand to warrant his continued selection at No.8. Easter is a squad/rotation player at best, not a Premiership-standard No.8 and certainly not a European level player. But I have lamented Mark Easter enough so far this season.
Sale's other option at No.8 is Vilhami Fihaki, the Tongan international brought to Sale in November of last year who for whatever reason appears to be in Steve Diamond's doghouse, incapable of securing a starting berth despite, in vastly limited opportunities, displaying a more dynamic attacking option than the incumbent Easter. So if Fihaki isn't an option for reasons unbeknownst to everyone but Sale's coaching staff, does Lund's move to 8 last weekend indicate a new way of thinking for Diamond?
On reflection, Lund could very well do a job at No.8 for Sale. He is no Steffon Armitage and make no mistake about it Sale could really do with an Armitage-like bulldozer at 8, but consider the other options at Sale's disposal and Lund begins to look a very attractive option. Lund is a capable ball-carrier with good height, strength and pace who, despite being used in the defensive "two 7s" role in Diamond's system has shown more attacking flair and incisiveness than Mark Easter has as a No.8 this season. Also working in Lund's favour is that he is a very tidy player, well-disciplined, a tackling machine and makes few errors either with possession or without. Perhaps most importantly however, would be that shifting Lund to No.8 would allow Sale to employ all three of Dan Braid, Dave Seymour and Maggie Lund at any one time which would reap massive benefits at the breakdown where Sale would be nearly unplayable and around the edges of both the scrum and ruck.
You would be hard-pressed to find any Sale fan who would disagree with the statement that Lund has been the best of Sale's summer signings this season especially in Dan Braid's absence and moving him into a role which would see him get continued game time even with Braid back and Dave Seymour in wonderful form is a very interesting idea for Diamond and Sale to pursue.
For what it's worth I still think giving Fihaki or even Michael Paterson (who has become an even more prominent part of Sale's attack this season regularly lining up on the wing with Sale in possession in the opponent's 22) an extended run at No.8 are both more traditional and 'fail-safe' options but I cannot say I am not intrigued by the idea of Lund lining up at 8. Easter is not giving Sale enough at the position and Fihaki does not seem to be a fixture in Diamond's plans so why not Lund?
Looking ahead to Sale's weekend clash against Wasps in the first round of this year's LV Cup, one would expect to see a big degree of rotation in Sale's starting lineup considering the frequency with which many first-team regulars have been used this season.
I would anticipate Eifon Lewis-Roberts, Vadim Cobilas, Michael Paterson, David Seymour, Danny Cipriani, Tom Arscott, Johnny Leota and Tom Brady all to be rested in some capacity which should also allow opportunities for some of Sale's lesser-used and academy players to feature.
I predict we will see Darren Fearn, James Flynn, Andrew Hughes, Charlie Ingall, Phil Mackenzie all for the first time this season whilst Cameron Neild, Josh Beaumont, Vilhami Fihaki, Nathan Fowles, Joe Ford, Andy Forsyth could be in line for their first starts this season.
Additionally, look for some of Sale's players returning from injury to also play in order to regain match fitness, Dan Braid, Mark Cueto et. al.
With all that considered here is a reasonable guess at Sale's 23 to take the field on Saturday:
Fearn, Mamukashvili, Harrison
Braid, Fihaki, Hughes
Cueto, Jennings, Forsyth, Ingall
Bench: Di Marchi, Neild, Flynn, Paterson, Lund, Fowles, McLeod, Mackenzie
Anything else to suggest Shark Tank Rugby covers? Don't agree with Magnus Lund as a No.8? Comments and tweets to @SharkTankRugby are welcome and appreciated!
Six days later and I still do not think I am over the heartbreak that was Ian Keetley’s 82nd minute drop goal to steal victory from Sale’s grasp on their debut in the European Rugby Champions Cup for Munster, 27-26.
I hope that the Sale players are made of sterner stuff than I as on Sunday they travel to Clermont Auvergne’s Michelin Stadium to face last year’s Semi-Finalists in round two of Europe’s premier competition. Here are three things to look out for:
Can Steve Diamond rally the team after such a cruel result?
On radio and in the press this week Steve Diamond has made it abundantly clear he has not had to encourage the team in getting them up to task facing Clermont; the team is hungrier than ever after coming so close to a famous win over Irish powerhouses Munster. Whilst this is most likely the case, one wonders after such a brutal encounter versus Munster, do Sale have the capacity to produce another scintillating performance and go one better against one of the French powerhouses of Europe? It will undoubtedly be tough; backed by 25,000 passionate and noisy fans, Clermont are even more intimidating on the field, able to field a star-studded squad featuring the likes of Damien Chouley, Jonathan Davies and Wesley Fofana, many in the rugby community do not expect much from Sale on Sunday but then again who predicted last weekend’s game to be so close?
How will Danny Cipriani bounce back after Wednesday’s England disappointment?
In a surprising decision, England boss Stuart Lancaster opted not to select Danny Cipriani in the England squad for next month’s autumn internationals when the EPS squad was announced on Wednesday. Whilst many have criticised Lancaster for opting for Northampton Saints’ fly-half Stephen Myler over the aforementioned Sale fly-half, the door is not shut on Cipriani by any means. There are still seven or so players to be added to the wider training squad next week and Lancaster explicitly mentioned this weekend’s Sale-Clermont game as one he will be watching in a not-so-suitable reference to Cipriani. However a p*ssed off Cipriani with something to prove is often a precursor to some of his best individual performances and there will be a massive chip on his shoulder to prove Lancaster and co. wrong. Cipriani had a great game in all areas versus Munster although as the game wore on there were a few instances where Cipriani opted for the wrong decision at critical points in the game. However a replication of his Munster showing would certainly give Lancaster pause for thought if he made the wrong decision.
*I think Cipriani makes the wider training squad and is used as injury cover over the international period for what its worth. *
Dan Braid is back!
The influential Kiwi back-row has been a sorely missed presence in the Sale pack since going down with an ankle injury in the opening game of the season. Still not 100% fit however Diamond has opted, correctly, to start Braid on the bench and will likely give the Sale captain 15-20 minutes at the end of the game to aid his fitness, injuries to the team permitting. Here’s hoping Braid makes a triumphant return to the Sale team and has completely managed to shake off his troublesome injury for the more arguably more pivotal games on Sale’s calendar in the coming months.
Prediction: Clermont 32-20 Sale Sharks
What a game. What. A. Game. If there was ever a game to bring the Sale Sharks fans disillusioned with the club since the move to the AJ Bell, back to attending Sale matches this was it. Sale-Munster had it all; fantastic attacking rugby, massive goal-line defence, tension, excitement, drama and a last second Ian Keetley drop goal to cruelly deny Sale a well-deserved win.
Was this the same Sale team that got dismantled by Northampton last weekend? It certainly did not look like it starting with:
All-in-all, today almost feels like a victory for Sale given the impressive manner in which they nearly snatched victory from a powerhouse of European rugby. Munster could have easily have rolled into the AJ Bell and demolished Sale the way Saracens and Northampton have done over the past month and not many of the rugby community would have batted an eye. Instead Sale gave Munster a much tougher game than they would have anticipated, coming close to an improbable victory and showing drastic improvement in the scrum and lineout that will bode well for future games later in the season. Take solace Sale fans.
This Saturday could be the most important match in Sale Sharks’ history.
Money, as they say, makes the world go round, and as we in the dawn of the era of professionalism can now see, the game of Rugby Union is no longer exempt from the influence of hard cash, colourful billionaire owners and lavish spending.
As those of you who follow Shark Tank Rugby’s Twitter account will know, I was unable to watch the Sale – Northampton game yesterday due to a prior commitment. On my return from Sheffield last night I dissected the full match replay on the Premiership’s official website, however video was only available from midnight on Saturday onwards which I hope will explain my tardiness in producing a match report.
I have opted today however, in the face of Sale’s decimation at the hands of Northampton, to take a slightly different approach to producing a report of yesterday’s match.
After a hard-fought but well-deserved win over the (now) nomadic Wasps last weekend, Sale face an even greater challenge on Saturday as they face defending Premiership champions Northampton Saints at Franklin's Gardens. Here's three things to watch out for:
1) How does Josh Beaumont fare in his first start for Sale in over a year?
Ironically, earlier on this week I found myself thinking about Josh Beaumont and how he fits into Sale's plans going forward. An academy product that spent time with both Newcastle and Flyde before Sale, Beaumont is now 22 and is reaching the end of the "development" cycle attributed with academy prospects. Last year's season-ending injury was an obvious set back to his developemtn but now Beaumont is back to full fitness it is now time to see if he has what it takes to forge a place in the Sale 23. Beaumont has been afforded that opportunity this week, as he is the solitary change to the starting XV against Wasps replacing Jonathan Mills at Lock as Michael Paterson's Second Row partner. With Nathan Hines' tendon injury set to keep the Scot out until after Christmas, Jonathan Mills' ineffectual form to start the season and Andrei Ostrikov in Montevideo with Russia as they compete in the second leg of a Rugby World Cup Qualifier against Uruguay, Beaumont has been given the ultimate "sink-or-swim" test against the reigning champions and their fearsome pack. A solid performance from Beaumont against the likes of Courtney Lawes and Tom Wood would certainly put his name into contention for a starting place, and considering his potential, youth and the prestigious rugby stock from which he comes, it would be a welcome sight to see Beaumont cement his place long-term at the heart of Sale's pack. And no more of this No.8 business, he's a lock, Diamond.
2) Has Sale's set piece improved from last week?
The restoration of Ross Harrison and Vadim Cobilas as starting props along with the return of Marc Jones at Hooker helped steady Sale's under performing pack to a degree against Wasps last week, although as the game progressed and Wasps cleared their bench, there was a very evident shift in ascendency to the visitors, one that Sale were just about able to contain to help consolidate their lead and eventual win. Sale will come up against an even tougher test against Northampton's pack tomorrow, one that is arguably the most dominant in the league even without the likes of Dylan Hartley, Christian Day who start the game on the bench. Sale's set piece will have to be impeccable to ensure they do not repeat their deplorable performance against a similar strength Saracens "wolfpack" which simply steamrolled right over Sale's forwards en route to a 40-19 win. We saw improvement against Wasps for 60-odd minutes of the game, will they be better again on Saturday?
3) Is Dan Braid any decent as a pundit?
As many of you will know, the Sale-Northampton game tomorrow will be televised on BT Sport. Joining the usual line-up of Bayfield, Doyle and Healey is Sale's very own skipper Dan Braid serving as a pundit and analyist. Braid's "rugby brain" on the pitch is frequently observed by many of the Sale faithful and one would imagine he'll have plenty of insight to offer BT's customers. Here's hoping he is not too good at the role however; as part of his contract extension last season, Sale's head honcho Steve Diamond offered Braid a post-retirement coaching role at Sale, a position one would think Braid would excel at, so let's hope Braid does not excel too well as a pundit lest BT pinch him from any further involvement with Sale!
Sale: Luke McLean, Tom Brady, Jonny Leota, Mark Jennings, Tom Arscott, Danny Cipriani, Chris Cusiter, Ross Harrison, Marc Jones, Vadim Cobilas, Josh Beaumont, Michael Paterson, Magnus Lund, David Seymour (Captain), Mark Easter.
Bench: Cameron Neild, Alberto de Marchi, Eifion Lewis Roberts, Jonathan Mills, Viliami Fihaki, Will Cliff, Joe Ford, Andy Forsyth
Northampton: Ben FODEN, Ken PISI, George PISI, Luther BURRELL, Jamie ELLIOTT, Stephen MYLER, Lee DICKSON, Alex WALLER, Mike HAYWOOD, Salesi MA’AFU, Courtney LAWES, James CRAIG, Tom WOOD (capt), Jon FISHER, Samu MANOA
Bench: Dylan Hartley, Ethan Waller, Gareth Denman, Christian Day, Calum Clark, Kahn Fotuali'i, James Wilson, George North
Prediction: Northampton Saints 35 - 20 Sale Sharks.
Sale Sharks vs Wasps, Sunday afternoon, 2:07 pm, Wasps' 22, Tom Arscott took a pass on Sale's left wing from Michael Paterson, evaded the desperation tackle from Joe Simpson and acrobatically dived over the try line to record the first score of the afternoon for either side.
In all it was a simple, through-the-hands play that resulted in Arscott's try, his fifth in five games in the 2014-15 season, but his early score served as the metaphorical cherry on top of another strong and decisive performance from the 27 year-old who is in the form of his career in his second season at Sale Sharks.
Indeed Arscott has gone from strength to strength since replacing Mark Cueto in the 52nd minute of Sale's home opener against Bath last month; the former London Welsh man has played every single possible minute since the Bath game (320 out of 320). He has performed superbly in all aspects of the game this season; in attack he has been a dangerous and lively runner, positioning himself to burst through any gaps that appear in defence, defensively sound in tackling out on the wing and his tactical kicking has seen improvement from last year as well. Also worth pointing out is Arscott's enthusiasim and determination that adds another dimension to the pace he possesses; Arscott has frequently been the first Sale player to get to the ball from restarts into the opposition half and his speed on the touchline is a dangerous weapon that Sale have utilised to great effect this season especially with low kicks through the defence for Arscott to gather out on the wing.
What is most apparent is that Arscott has rectified his tendency to "overplay" the situations he finds himself in that led to the needless turnovers which dogged his performances towards the end of last season. For instance, Arscott at times last year opted to try and take on a solitary defender when fielding a kick back in his own 22 and when tackled was left isolated allowing the defending team to turnover the ball. This season however Arscott is playing smarter with ball-in-hand and is making decisions more beneficial to the team perhaps as a result of switching from the full-back position he played last year to left wing in Mark Cueto's absence.
Arscott has been one of, if not the most, electric of Sale's players this season leading the Sharks in metres made, clean breaks and defenders beaten across the whole team as well as topping the Premiership's try scoring table with five scores in five games.
But Arscott's superb form is leading me to pose another question; has he been able to play his way into England contention?
Before I am robbed of my credibility as a rugby writer, I will admit that the likelihood of Arscott being included in England's Autumn EPS squad is slim, especially with the current form of Gloucester's Johnny May and Bath's Semesa Rokoduguni, who are at the front of the line to displace incumbent England internationals Marland Yarde and Christian Wade. However if Stuart Lancaster is true to his word about selecting players based on form rather than on past pedigree surely Arscott's form at Sale would warrant at least an extended consideration from Lancaster and co. especially if Arscott can continue his fine try-scoring form between now and October 22 when the England squad for the Autumn Internationals are announced.
The strength of England's wing depth however will most likely relegate Arscott to the England Saxons set up if he is to be included at all especially given Arscott's age and lack of experience at international level. However a call up to the Saxons team would be fully deserved given the performance he has put in for Sale this season and should they continue, it is a story line worth watching out for over the next few months.
An immense defensive performance and opportunistic play amongst the backs helped Sale Sharks record their second win of the season 25-14 over Wasps on Sunday.
In a game that was dominated both possession and territory wise by Wasps, tries in the first and last 5 minutes from Tom Arscott and Tom Brady either side of a Chris Cusiter score in the 39th minute kept Sale at a healthy distance from their Coventry-bound adversaries who for all their possession could not break down Sale's resilient defence for huge stretches of the game.
It was a fine performance all round from Sale under the watchful eyes of both Messrs Diamond and Lancaster and victory today has propelled the team to 8th in the Aviva Premiership ahead of next week's encounter with Northampton Saints.
Sale Sharks take on Kearnan Myall, James Gaskell, Rob Miller and 12 others on Sunday in their first BT Sport-televised match of the season. Here's Three Things to look out for:
1) How do the old boys get on in their return to the AJ Bell?
If you were to ask me which team in the Premiership or even the world that I dislike the most it would be Wasps. This is partly because of the "Pizzagate" ordeal back in 2009 but also because Wasps have a depressing tendency, especially in recent years, to sign Sale's up-and-coming English talent who we are desperate to keep at the club. First it was Chris Bell, then Kearnan Myall (our standout performer from the 2012/13 season) and last season, in a massive double blow, Wasps were able to swoop in and sign both Rob Miller and James Gaskell, two young, first team regulars with serious aspirations of playing for the England setup in the immediate future. There have also been rumours that Wasps are eying up Danny Cipriani as a potential replacement for the ageing Andy Goode when "Cips'" contract expires at the end of the season but lets not think about that.
Gaskell and Miller were both on the scoresheet for Wasps last weekend in their 35-18 victory over Newcastle Falcons although both have found themselves rotated in and out of the first team at their respective positions of Lock and Fullback. Kearnan Myall has been Joe Launchbury's main partner in Wasps' second row this season but he too has been rotated frequently (usually for James Gaskell). Its quite possible, albeit unlikely, that none of Sale's three biggest exports in recent years even make Wasps' first team for the game on Sunday. Most likely we will see all three involved in some capacity in the Wasps' 23 and all eyes will be closing following each former Shark as they look to get one over on their old club. Whether they can do so is another matter although I feel my heart might shatter should James Gaskell score the winning try in the 79th minute following a break from Rob Miller. We shall see.
2) Will Vilhami Fihaki finally get a starting berth?
Perhaps my strongest condemnation of Sale Sharks so far this season has been regarding the lack of playing time afforded to Tongan No.8 Vilhami Fihaki coupled with the underwhelming play of Sale's starting No.8 Mark Easter. As I have said many times this season already, Easter has not necessarily played poorly in the games he has started, but for a team that lacks a strong ball-carrying forward, Easter's ineffectiveness at the position has been damning for Sale this year.
Vilhami Fihaki in my opinion offers that dynamic play amongst the forwards that Mark Easter simply does not possess. Fihaki breaks tackle, gets out into open space, moves well with ball in hand and has a surprsing combination of both pace and power to supplement his soft hands. I happened to come across this statistic earlier this week concerning Fihaki's performance in last weekend's loss to Saracens and is indicative of what he has to offer the Sale team as opposed to Easter:
Also worth considering is that Wasps have the ability to put out a simply monstrous back row of Ashley Johnson, James Haskell and Nathan Hughes all of whom have received plaudits for their strong starts to the season; it is a back-row Sale cannot match in terms of raw ability and power but surely utilising our strongest back row forward from the starting kick-off is the beginning of a sound strategy to impede the back of Wasps' scrum? I certainly feel Diamond is missing a trick if he opts again to have Mark Easter starting at No.8.
3) Will Marc Jones and Mark Cueto feature?
After a torrid start to the season relating to injuries, Sale fans were offered a glimmer of hope on the Sale Supporters' message board yesterday:
Unfortunately I cannot vouch for the authenticity of this source, I know not who "Penalty Try" is or what his associations with the club are, although it must be said that many on the Supporters' forum are known to have close connections with both the Sale Sharks club and Sale FC (who provide a small number of players for Sale's academy) so this could very well be true.
If so it makes for a massive boost for Sale particularly the news of Marc Jones; much has been made already of Sale's crippled depth at hooker to start the season and Dan Braid aside, "Jonesy" has been Sale's most notable absence in the team. Going up against a team as strong and deep as Wasps means that Sale need all of their key players back for what will be a tough game against two well-balanced sides especially at home and Marc Jones is a welcome return that should hopefully steady a scrum that was perpetually marching backwards last week at the Allianz (if he makes it).
It will be interesting to see if Mark Cueto goes straight back into the first team. After going down to injury in Sale's opening game against Bath, replacement Tom Arscott has excelled starting for Sale on the left wing and his superb run of form would indicate that is it Arscott who should start with Mark Cueto on the bench. That being said I would not be surprised in the slightest to see Cueto featured in the starting XV in some capacity and I worry that Diamond's eagerness to incorporate Cueto's experience and guile from the off would result in a fitter (and at this point more dynamic) player being dropped to the bench in his stead; think Mark Jennings and Andy Forsyth. (Also a quick note; I am a big fan of Andy Forsyth and I think he is being criminally underused in the current Sale setup). Cueto is still an effective and talented player without a doubt, but inserting him straight back into the lineup is at this stage does not benefit the Sale team as much as doing so with Marc Jones at hooker.
Team Prediction: McLean, Brady, Jennings, Leota, Arscott, Cipriani, Cusiter. Harrison, Jones, Cobilas, Mills, Paterson, Lund, Seymour, Fihaki.
Bench: Di Marchi, Mamukashvili, Lewis-Roberts, Beaumont, Easter, Cliff, Ford, Cueto.
Score: 27-24 Sale.