With a performance to match the miserable conditions, Sale clawed and scrapped their way to a disappointing 15-15 draw against Newcastle Falcons on Saturday, a mediocre result in a fixture the Sharks were heavily favoured to win.
A sudden change in the swirling winds that had come to define this season first official ‘Northern Derby’ was to agonisingly deny Danny Cipriani a perfect day at the kicking tee and a Sale victory; his last minute kick being driven wide by the conditions to prevent the Sharks snatching an admittedly ill-deserved triumph at the death.
In truth, Sale can count themselves incredibly fortunate to have left the AJ Bell with any points at all having been thoroughly outplayed by a Falcons side who only played the horrendous conditions better, but also managed two tries to Sale’s none.
A massive game away to Gloucester on Friday awaits this floundering Sale side. Simply put this side has already dropped too many attainable points to strike much fear into the rest of the Premiership. To be blown away at Saracens where a losing bonus point is usually an acceptable and common result, to lose against Harlequins despite dominating for sixty-plus minutes, and now dropping two points in probably their most winnable game of the season is not indicative of a Sale team capable of challenging for the top-six this season. Sale now need to forget about 'conserving' players for their home fixtures this week, this is a club that desperately need a big, momentum-building win over a mid-table Premiership rival to get their campaign back on track, and how this team respond against Gloucester on Friday will speak volumes about what to expect from the Sharks for the rest of the season.
Lewis Hughes loves rugby and hates the weather. Follow @SharkTankRugby on Twitter for more news, opinions, and analysis of all things Sale Sharks.
With six games (four Premiership and two European Challenge Cup ties) already in the books, we find ourselves roughly a fifth of the way through this deferred 2015/16 season. Sale currently sit a comfortable 7th in the league whilst an impressive bonus point win over Pau at the weekend has seen them move into a three-way tie for first place in their Challenge Cup pool. A winning percentage of 50% in all competitions so far means it would be unfair to say the Sharks have stumbled out of the blocks, although the first six weeks have also shown that this iteration of the club still has ways to go before we can safely regard them as 'firing on all cylinders'. But which members of the club have particularly stood out during the first batch of this season's games? Here I offer four candidates, some already in the limelight and some a little less heralded, deserving of special mention for their efforts in driving Sale forward to start the season.
Coming off the back of an impressive World Cup campaign with Samoa, TJ Ioane - who only arrived at the club in January mind - used an early-season injury to David Seymour to propel himself into Sale's starting lineup and entrench himself as the Sharks' form flanker, no easy task considering the wealth of talent Sale possess at the position.
Although we saw flashes of it in limited appearances at the end of last season, Ioane's reputation as a energetic and ferocious ball-carrier and as something of a breakdown merchant has been vindicated with a number of exemplarily performances in the season's early-going, including a man-of-the-match display in the loss to Harlequins earlier this month.
Indeed the Samoan has often served as a spark-plug to Sale's offence this year, his devil-may-care carrying style and fervent approach to tackling acting as the catalyst for generating forward momentum for the team regardless of whether he's starting or coming off the bench. In addition Ioane is often the first out of the Sharks' defensive line in preparation for a tackle using his impressive foot speed to cut down the gap between himself and the ball-carrier, whilst the former Otago man has single-handily won a number of crucial turnovers on Sale's try-line showing his capability to thrive within the 'fetcher' role.
A bit of an unknown quantity coming into this season, TJ's imposing performances when given chances in the first team have seem him deservedly earn the starting open-side flanker shirt, one that David Seymour and Magnus Lund will struggle to usurp so long as the Samoan continues his coruscating form.
Injuries have allowed another player to make his case for a larger role within the Sale first team - loosehead prop James Flynn. With Eifon Lewis-Roberts going down with an ankle injury during preseason, the 22-year-old Flynn has seen opportunity arise in the form of backing up current incumbent Ross Harrison on the bench.
And whilst Harrison has seemed to struggle with shoulder/binding issues this season, Flynn has formed 1/3 of a surprisingly dominant replacement scrumming trio with Neil Briggs and Brian Mujati who have helped Sale win three scrums against the head this year.
More assured and powerful on his side of the scrum, Flynn has also shown excellent mobility around the park - including an eye for the try-line - and despite his minutes being carefully protected by Diamond (rarely seeing more than 10 minutes in lieu of Harrison in the Premiership), Flynn has certainly put his hand up for greater consideration and extended gametime even when Lewis-Roberts eventually returns.
To call Sale's transfer activities in preparation for the 2015/16 campaign underwhelming is both an understatement and well-traversed ground. The admittedly low-key and modest nature of the additions to the Sharks squad therefore - especially in relation to their wealthier rivals - has given added impetus to the players they did bring in to come in and be immediate difference-makers.
The seamless nature of his transition from outsider to key first team starter has allowed him to fly under the radar slightly, but in only six games Bryn Evans looks already set to join the growing list of astute signings made by Steve Diamond since the latter's return to the club in 2011.
Though by no means the type of physical specimen that is coming to dominate the modern second row (he says referring to a 6 ft 5 in, 18 stone lock and acknowledging the relativeness of it all) Evans has served as an almost pound-for-pound replacement for Michael Paterson, succeeding his Kiwi countryman as Sale's primary lineout option and as a pleasantly surprising fleet of foot, mobile lock capable of moving around the park on both sides of the ball. Perhaps lacking slightly the scrummaging power of say a Nathan Hines or an Andrei Ostrikov, Evans' mobility and decisiveness in the air have more than made up for such attributes especially when paired with Jonathan Mills in the second row.
It was unfair to expect Evans to come in cold and replace both the departing Hines and Paterson, and the quiet and efficient manner in which the former All Black goes about his game has seen some fans critical of his impact in a Sale shirt so far. But Evans has been exactly what Sale needed after losing two influential locks in one fell swoop - a consistent and effective performer in the loose and the set-piece that has allowed Sale's formidable forwards machine to keep rumbling onwards. There is no clearer indicator of the immediate value Evans has brought to the Sharks than the fact he leads the team in minutes played this season (400, tied with Mike Haley) and in every one of the games he's featured in - five - he has played the full 80 minutes.
The current talk of the town, 21-year-old Sam James is the latest product of the notorious Sharks academy to burst onto the professional rugby scene, in a similar vein to how Mike Haley and Josh Beaumont emerged for Sale last year. A messiah for fans who have long lamented the 'bosh brothers' centre combination of Sam Tuitupou and Johnny Leota, James has thrust himself into the limelight with a series of captivating displays at outside centre where his handling, passing, and creativity have been on full display including against Northampton where he scored this unbelievable solo effort:
Most exciting for those watching the Wimslow-born centre/fly-half however is the complete package of skills he seems to possess and the potential flexibility Sale have in deploying James anywhere along the 10-12-13 axis.
Standing at 6 ft 5 in tall, James has a combination of strength and pace unmatched by anybody in the Sale squad not called Beaumont, which he made apparent with three scintillating line breaks and a close-range try against Harlequins earlier this month. Yet its James' less obvious ability to pass and read the defence in front of them that has seen many, including David Flatman, earmark him as a future international 13, and is something that was noticeable from the first game of the season where James' superb decision-making was one of few bright spots in a losing effort at Saracens.
Having a second creative pivot in the midfield is currently one of the most effective trends sweeping both domestic and international rugby, and James' emergence not only gives Sale a more-nuanced and innovative option in the midfield to create attacking opportunities from the gaps left by the power and grunt of either Tuitupou or Leota playing at inside centre, but also lessens the pressure on Danny Cipriani to generate each of Sale's line-breaks.
Diamond showed last season he was happy to let the form players in Beaumont and Haley usurp their more established and experienced teammates, and if James continues on his current form (he scored a try for the third consecutive match against Pau on Saturday), the next piece of Sale's growing English dynasty will fall into place sooner rather than later.
7th in the Premiership, 2nd in Pool 2 of the European Challenge Cup (due to the postponement of Castres vs Pau last weekend), and Pau at the weekend. There's your context, let's get down to some questions:
All depends on how Sale have been set out for the first sixty minutes. Imagining the Sharks have fielded their (currently preferred) full-strength team to start, there a number of potent options that could theoretically come off the bench and make an immediate impact - Eifon Lewis-Roberts, Brian Mujati, Andrei Ostrikov, David Seymour, Peter Stringer, and Johnny Leota are all Premiership-standard players capable of either aiding a comeback effort or consolidating a lead. In that instance then I believe yes they do, but Sale's depth is notoriously shallow and a number of injuries in key positions could rapidly decimate Sale's replacement-level strength, especially if, like they did at the weekend, they also choose to rotate the side and rest their first-team starters.
If Andrei Ostrikov and Vilhami Fihaki continue to play in the same vein as they did at the weekend, 100% yes. Ostrikov was poor against Newport whilst Fihaki was Sale's standout performer, carrying with purpose and enthusiasm. Beaumont is arguably still slightly 'light' for a Lock but his added mobility and lineout presence could prove decisive in the last twenty minutes of a match especially with a fired-up and destructive Fihaki taking the onus on ball-carrying. Unconventional maybe, but sometimes you have to pick on form.
Unfortunately probably not at all. Unless there is a sudden and dramatic increase in Sale's attendances and revenues, it is hard to envision the Sharks being able to add to their present salary expenditure (well under the current cap of £5.1million) in line with the recent cap increases. Whether they want to admit it or not, the Premiership's decision to increase the cap was clearly done to protect the interests of a small number of the richer English clubs who can afford to spend £7million plus a year on players. Alas, Sale are not one of them.
In my personal opinion Sale's wingers ranked in order of ability are:
How I believe Sale see their depth at winger:
In relation to why Brady seems to have fallen down the pecking order, I believe with Addison and Arscott rightly entrenched as Sale's go-to wing pairing and Edwards' status as a new signing with the ability to offer something different (i.e. blazing pace and acceleration) it is only natural that Brady has retained his spot as fourth-choice winger following Mark Cueto's retirement, rightly or wrongly.
Tough one. In a perfect world, I would've liked to see Jim Mallinder or Rob Baxter take over for a long-term approach. That said, with Michael Cheika, Wayne Smith, and Mallinder among a handful of names who have all come out and said they have no interest in the job it has put the RFU in a difficult spot.
That said, Eddie Jones is by no means a consolation prize. Jones has experience of coaching at the highest levels in both hemispheres, played a key role in South Africa's victorious 2007 World Cup campaign, and masterminded the biggest upset in international rugby history as part of Japan's impressive third-place finish in this year's tournament. I'm a firm believer that Stuart Lancaster took England as far as he possibly could in his four years at the helm but Jones has the nous, experience, and ability to take England to a truly world-class level.
Where do I start?
Make sure to follow @SharkTankRugby on Twitter for more news, analysis, and opinions on all things Sale Sharks.
NB: Apologies for the recent inactivity on the site. I have had a very busy two weeks in regards to University work which is now thankfully behind me and which should allow me to get back to posting with more regularity, starting with another mailbag feature later this week. Any questions on Sale, rugby, the Premiership, Champions/Challenge Cup, or life in general are appreciated and will be featured.
A youthful and rotated Sale squad began their 2015/16 Challenge Cup campaign with a dud on Sunday, being comprehensively outplayed by their hosts Newport Gwent Dragons in a 30-12 defeat. Despite Sale holding substantial advantages in possession and territory, Dragons' clinical execution and late-game tactics smothered any hopes of a rare away victory for the Sharks who left Rodney Parade with zero points to Newport's five despite tries from James Mitchell and Jonathan Mills.
Indeed much will be made of Steve Diamond's decision to makes 13 changes to the side that narrowly lost out to Harlequins a week last Friday, and one wonders how a resounding defeat of this nature will impact Sale's lineup for their fixture against Pau on Saturday.
Today's ticklist: 1) Don't forget to follow @SharkTankRugby on Twitter for more news, analysis, and opinions and 2) Remember to submit your questions for this week's mailbag either via Twitter or a comment below.
A fifteen minute spell encompassing the end of the first, and beginning of the second halfs that saw Harlequins score all 16 of their points on the night was to prove decisive as Sale, despite battling valiantly, fell to a 16-14 defeat at The Stoop on Friday.
A fortuitous bounce that allowed Dan Braid to scamper over in the 16th minute had given Sale an admittedly deserved lead before 16 points - 11 from the boot of Nick Evans and 5 courtesy of Tim Visser's touchdown were to give Quins a lead they wouldn't relinquish despite Sam James' 64th minute try and Danny Cipriani's last minute attempt at a drop goal.
A losing bonus point gained away at a much improved Harlequins side is nothing to sneer at, however the nature of Sale's defeat coming as a result of their inability to stem a blizting second half start from their hosts despite being the better side for 65 minutes is certainly frustrating.
Sale now have eight days' rest before making their first excursion into the European Challenge Cup away at the Newport Gwent Dragons. Having played two games in the last week, its a welcome break from the Premiership.
NB: As you may have seen on Twitter the last couple of days, I've been canvassing opinions on starting a semi-regular mailbag/tweetbag feature where readers send their questions in and I answer them, probably in a serious manner. With an overwhelmingly positive response to the idea (71% of those polled said they would be interested in contributing questions for the column) I believe I now hold a sufficient mandate to get more articles like this off the ground. The frequency of this column will depend on a number of mitigating factors, not least the amount of questions I receive, so if you have anything you'd like answered here on the blog be it about Sale Sharks, general rugby, or anything else you can think of, do get in touch either on Twitter @SharkTankRugby, via email (button in the top right) or through a comment on the blog. Anyway time to delve deep into the very first Shark Tank Feedbag:
It emerged via Sale's press day on Tuesday that Cusiter has been ruled out of Friday's fixture at Harlequins due to failing a concussion protocol so the question has now been mooted somewhat. However that said, had Cusiter been available there should have been serious doubts about him starting. Three times vs Northampton Cusiter was at fault for taking his attention away with the ball present at the back of the ruck which allowed Saints the opportunity to turn the ball over - an absolutely unacceptable mistake to make at the top level, never mind three times in forty minutes. The ex-Scotland international made up for it somewhat in the second half with a far more assured performance but there has to at least be some scrutiny placed on his spot in the starting lineup after that performance, especially considering Peter Stringer's assured performance in relief of Cusiter after he was concussed.
Simon however is obviously on the ball in regards to keeping up with the news coming out of the Sale camp. The Challenge Cup is an interesting conundrum for Sale this season and the manner in which they approach it I think will be defined by their position in the Premiership. The allure of the automatic Champions Cup sport reserved for the Challenge Cup winners could become very tempting for Sale and encourage them to invest all their energies and resources into winning the tournament should their domestic form begin to slip. That said I think a balance needs to be struck between rotation and strength; it wouldn't kill Sale to have both Vilhami Fihaki and Josh Beaumont playing in the first team together against Pau or Castres and giving the likes of Mark Jennings or Andy Hughes the chance to run lines with Danny Cipriani, but only if it isn't at the detriment of their Premiership form, at least until their reachable ambitions within that league have been clarified.
My predictions for Sale, which haven't really changed despite the encouraging start to the season that has seen them won two out of their first three games, can be found here. I am also in agreement that Sale do need a playmaking centre to give themselves the ability to alter their gameplan on the fly should their preferred method of employing the Bosh Brothers in the midfield be proving ineffective. Sale simply can't afford to be a one-dimensional team in a league populated by teams with larger squads with more flexible and fluent personnel to fit a multitude of strategies and that means having another creative force alongside Cipriani in the midfield.
Which leads us neatly onto the next question. And my answer is absolutely Joe. I have been saying for a long time now Sale's attacking ability would be optimised by having a balance between brawn and physicality and playmaking and 'footballing' ability. James vindicated me perfectly on Sunday showing how beneficial it can be to have an extra member in the backline capable of producing that little bit of game-changing magic out of nowhere alongside somebody who is able to power through defences to create the space for the former. Whether Sale are better balanced by having James play outside of either Sam Tuitupou or Johnny Leota I am not sure but James did not put a foot wrong the entire game vs Northampton and certainly deserves to retain his spot on Friday.
I still think Sale are at least a winger short of having a fully-rounded squad so let's say Julian Savea. Probably a little out of Sale's price range but who wouldn't love to see the New Zealand winger at his destructive best in the Premiership? Talk about a game changer in the backline..
With Cusiter out of the lineup Mitchell is guaranteed at least a bench start and probably 20 minutes on the field against Harlequins. I would be very tempted to see how he fares with a starting role in a fortnight's time against Pau however, ideally behind a relatively full strength pack and flinging passes to Cipriani to evaluate how he could fare in a 'true' first team matchup. Mitchell needs to get at least a handful of starts this season and as long as Sale keep rolling in the Premiership and Cusiter is unavailable, Mitchell should get his chance in Europe in two week's time.
For the third time in their last three encounters hosting Northampton Saints at the AJ Bell stadium, Sale Sharks emerged triumphant over the Jimmies once again in a thrilling, nail-biting and fiercely-contested affair on Sunday afternoon, inching their way to a narrow but deserved 20-13 victory.
Two superb individual tries from Sam James and Will Addison respectively and 10 points from Danny Cipriani was enough to ensure Sale secured their second Premiership victory of the season despite a spirited comeback from Northampton that saw the final result only decided by a Saints' knock-on with the clock dead centimetres from the Sharks' try-line.
With Sunday's win Sale are now in the top-six for the first time this season with two wins out of three and nine points out of a possible fifteen. Not a bad start to the season especially considering the hypothetical advantage Sale were supposed to enjoy with many of their rivals losing players to England duty during the Premiership's first few rounds never actually materialised. A ludicrously quick turnaround sees Sale next in action at the Stoop on Friday.
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