Following Saturday's game against Leicester, Sale are officially at the halfway point of the 2014/15 season. Before the season began in the summer of 2014 Sale brought in seven new players to replace those departing and to supplement the squad having finished a remarkable 6th in the Premiership last season and qualified for the European Champions Cup. With 11 rounds of the Premiership and four rounds of the ECC officially in the books, it is time to evaluate those summer signings and see how they've fitted into the team and what part they will play within the squad ahead of the season's second half. Here I've affixed each arrival with an arbitary 'grade' as a way of quantifying their on-field performances along with a number of individual observations.
For the third time this season (Gloucester away and Munster at home the others) Sale roared out to a large second half lead before eventually conceding the game in the dying minutes by a single score. The positive is, with four tries scored and a loss by only two points, Sale picked up both a try and losing bonus point to secure something out of their capitulation. The negative however is that they really should have had all five points the way Sale dominated.
Sale have a chance to make it five successive league wins on the bounce when they host Leicester Tigers tomorrow afternoon. Here's three things to watch out for:
Who's actually playing No.8?
Sale's official team listing currently has Dan Braid slated to start at the Number 8 position with in-form Josh Beaumont nowhere to be found (likely injured). Now I, you and my 90 year-old Grandma all know that Dan Braid is not a Number 8 by any definition and its likely that Magnus Lund will act as the default 8 at the scrum etc. but it is curious to see that Diamond has opted for his 'three 7s' strategy with Lund, Braid and Seymour all playing instead of using a more traditional No.8 - Mark Easter or Vilhami Fihaki. Do Sale have enough firepower in that back row to produce when in possession is the main question that needs to be answered since the 'three 7s' are more than exemplarily in defence but are going up against a very strong Tigers back row.
Can Danny Cipriani continue to further his England case?
Danny Cipriani, it is no exaggeration to say , turned his rugby career around at Sale last season; developing a mature and defensively responsible tactical aspect in his game to compliment his world-class ability and vision in attack. Such was his success last season that England head coach Stuart Lancaster finally ended Cipriani six-year international exile with a call-up to England's tour of New Zealand. The only blip in Cipriani's fantastic 2013/14 season however came against Leicester in Sale's last home game of the year where the Tigers were able to completely neutralise Cipriani in a very poor game for the 26 year-old, perhaps his worst of the season. This season Cipriani has continued his outstanding form and is once again in contention for an England place but will he able to produce a display similar to his game-changing one against Exeter last weekend against a team that did so well to stop him in this fixture last season?
Vereniki Goneva starts at Outside Centre
One of the Premiership's most dangerous attacking talents, Vereniki Goneva, starts at Outside Centre for Leicester tomorrow with England international Manu Tuilagi still on the treatment table and Leicester bereft of attack options in the centres. Goneva will be Leicester's key man and someone Sale have to neutralise if they have any hope of winning with both side's packs likely to be equally balanced.
Prediction: Sale Sharks 26 - 23 Leicester Tigers
Tigers are hampered by injuries to key first team players and in a poor run of form currently but one can never rule out Leicester and Richard Cockerill who know how important this game is to turn their season around. On the opposite side; Sale are in a great run of form and are returning 14 out of their 15 starters who beat Exeter fairly comprehensively in their last match. Home advantage and a big crowd should hopefully propel Sale to another victory.
With 10 of Sale's 22 Premiership games in the 2014/15 season in the books following their 18-11 victory over Exeter Chiefs last Friday; now was as good a time as any to hand out a few awards to the Sale squad as we hit the midway point of their season and the festive period.
Signing Of The (Mid)Season - Magnus LUnd
With Nathan Hines having spent the majority of the first three months of the season on the treatment table, Shalva Mamukashvili only spot-starting in relief of Marc Jones, Chris Cusiter's up-and-down form and Italian duo Luke McLean and Alberto Di Marchi largely proving to be busts since joining in the summer, it becomes an easy decision to nominate Magnus Lund as Sale's best signing of the season.
That's not to say Lund is simply the best of a bad bunch however, Lund has been in phenomenal form since re-joining the club from Biarritz, playing crucial minutes in both Dan Braid and Dave Seymour's respective absences; carrying and scrummaging well, putting in some fantastic breakdown work and regularly leading the team in tackles made (he's also currently the top tackle maker in the European Rugby Champions Cup). He's also regained his status as a cult figure at the club with his Norse God looks and leadership qualities.
Find Of The (Mid)season - Mike Haley
Another easy one - Mike Haley has been in scintillating form since being handed the #15 shirt in Sale's European fixture against Munster in mid-October. Haley, an academy player formerly of Preston Grasshoppers, has dazzled the AJ Bell with an unique blend of footwork, pace and confident running with ball in-hand. Frequently Sale's top metre-maker, Haley has shown no reason for big money summer signing Luke McLean to regain the vacated starting fullback slot and will surely play his way into England contention if he continues his strong form throughout the rest of the season.
Try Of The (Mid)season - Luke McLean vs Gloucester
In what was ultimately a losing performance; Sale produced a magnificent length of the field try vs Gloucester in Sale's second game of the season. Following a Gloucester infringement in Sale's 22, Danny Cipriani took a quick tap penalty before off-loading to Tom Brady having been tap-tackled from behind; Brady then slipped an inside pass to Luke McLean who raced away from the covering Gloucester forward to touch down in the corner. Video below at 0:39:
Disappointment Of The (Mid)season - Luke McLean
That moment of brilliance aside, the play of Luke McLean has been incredibly disappointing. Brought in to add a secondary playmaking option in Sale's backline alongside Danny Cipriani; McLean has in reality produced very little playmaking ability when in possession, unsure challenging for the ball in the air and an errant tackler, the latter two having directly lead to at least three tries conceded by Sale in games against Bath and Northampton. With the likely high salary paid for McLean's services as a fully-fledged international, it is hard not to see him as anything other than a disappointment, especially considering the aforementioned 20 year-old Mike Haley has looked like everything expected initially of McLean in wrestling the starting fullback job away from the Italian.
Player Of The (Mid)season - Danny Cipriani
As tempting as it was to put the always-great Dan Braid here, it would be unfair to exclude Danny Cipriani's influence on this year's Sale team. Often the line between Sale winning and losing in the Premiership and European competitions this season has been the play of Cipriani who's moments of individual brilliance and vision have served as a catalyst for Sale picking up a significant amount of points this season with four points at Newcastle away last month and Exeter on Friday night as well as two losing bonus points at Kingsholm in September all coming to mind. Cipriani has dotted down twice for Sale this year, with six additional try assists and 90 points and has once again improved his in-game management and tactical/territorial kicking to better fit Sale's system. A surprise omission from Stuart Lancaster's Autumn International squad despite repeated calls from the media for his inclusion, Cipriani's fine form in Sale's last four successive Premiership wins has once again pushed him well into England contention ahead of next year's Six Nations. Cipriani is having a second successive stellar season in Barton and there is growing optimism he will stay on with the Sharks even after his contract expires at the end of this season.
A return to Friday night rugby saw Sale secure their fourth consecutive Premiership win as they beat third-place Exeter Chiefs 18-11 in driving wind and rain to move into the top four for one night at least.
With the win, Sale are 4th in the Premiership until Saracens steamroll London Welsh at home this afternoon. Even so, to be a legitimate challenger for a top-four place at Christmas considering Sale won only two of their first six games is remarkable and credit must go to both the coaching staff and the players who look frankly like a new team. Tigers at home post-christmas beckons in what could be the AJ Bell's very first sell-out.
Your resident blogger was in attendance at BBC Radio Manchester's Rugby Union Extra Fan Forum tonight with Sale head coach Steve Diamond, Communications Director Dave 'Swanny' Swanton and Lock Michael Paterson. I transcribed the event and have diluted it into the main points of interest gathered here:
A recording of the show is available here from the BBC: http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/rue
Friday night lights for Sale tomorrow as they take on the high-flying Exeter Chiefs who currently sit 2nd in the Aviva Premiership, in Sale's first Friday night game of the 2014/15 season. Here's three things to watch out for:
Will Addison starting
Following a successful 80 minutes on the pitch injury free for Addison last weekend against Saracens; Steve Diamond has opted to give the Cumbrian born flyer a starting berth in the #14 jersey against Chiefs. Considering the injury-forced absence of Tom Arscott, Luke McLean's poor form and Tom Brady's defensive weaknesses, Addison starting, even though he's typically more of an Outside Centre, on that right wing is unsurprising - Sale are desperate to see a continued run of games from Addison who has flashed enormous potential when injury free. If Addison can impress tomorrow evening and keep fit, it is hard to see him lose his starting spot at the carousel that has been Sale's right wing this season.
Braid-Lund flanker combination
I appreciate as well as any Sale fan the workload Dave Seymour goes through and the effort he puts in for 80 minutes every single week for Sale; however watching the play of Magnus Lund this season has made me yearn to see both him and Dan Braid on the pitch simultaneously. This is not because Seymour has played poorly - far from it in fact - but because Seymour and Braid's styles of play are identical: both are undersized blindside flankers, who tackle hard and who excel at turning the ball over at the breakdown. It's a system that works well within Sale's gameplan but alternatively Magnus Lund offers all that Seymour does but also doubles up as a better lineout option and excellent ball carrier (especially important with Michael Paterson out and Josh Beaumont the only other back-5 forward who excels in that area). Dan Braid is untouchable in the Sale squad - he is team captain and even at 34 is Sale's best and most influential player - so its a straight shootout between Seymour and Lund for who gets picked to play alongside Braid. 'Maggie' has been preferred for tomorrow night after an incredible run of form over the last month although his selection has also been helped by Seymour's lack of match fitness. Seeing how Braid combines with Lund's alternative style of play as a flanker will be fascinating to watch tomorrow especially against Chiefs' back row of Ewers, White and Waldrom.
Thomas "The Tank Engine" Waldrom
Speaking of the devil, the former Leicester Tiger came close to joining Sale Sharks last season as his contract expired before ultimately opting to join tomorrow's opponents Chiefs instead. Since then Waldrom has been in scintillating form; he leads the Premiership in tries scored and average metres made per game even as a forward and has earned a call up to England's Autumn international squad in the process. Watching Waldrom's play has been especially painful knowing how close he came to becoming a Sale player earlier this year and Diamond will undoubtedly have identified him as one of the key players Sale will have to stop if they want to beat Exeter tomorrow night.
Prediction: Sale Sharks 23 - 20 Exeter Chiefs
Sale are in good form in the league and a Friday night game in poor weather will inhibit Exeter's free-flowing game. Sale to win a close one.
A meaningless loss in a meaningless game; Sale fell once again to Saracens for the third time this season in a game that, on a larger scale, has absolutely no impact on Sale's season.
An incredibly in-form Chiefs team currently second in the Premiership are up next for Sale at the AJ Bell on Friday night. Should be an early Christmas cracker (sorry!).
Unceremoniously dumped out of the European Rugby Champions Cup with last week's loss, the competition still goes on for Sale who travel down to Allianz Park for round 4 of their 'European' adventure. Here's three things to keep an eye on:
How are Nathan Hines' minutes managed upon his return?
The summer arrival from Clermont is in line to make his long-awaited return to action after having torn the bicep tendons in his arm only 8 minutes into his second game for Sale three months ago. With Michael Paterson now confirmed to be out for up to four months after surgery on his knee, Hines' return takes on added importance as an experienced and vocal member of the Sale pack. Saracens will be Hines' first game since September and Steve Diamond will be keen to see the 37 year-old come through the game unscathed ahead of next week's key Premiership clash against Exeter Chiefs; look for Hines to get around 50 minutes or so of action before being brought off.
Will Addison is also back (again)!
Seemingly his umpteenth injury comeback, Will Addison will also be making his first start for Sale since September, slotting in at Outside Centre alongside Mark Jennings. Has Addison finally put all his injury woes behind him and will we finally see him make good on the flashes of potential he has shown when healthy? Here's hoping; with Johnny Leota and possibly Mark Jennings ahead of him at his preferred position of Outside Centre, Addison needs to use these game-time opportunities to stake his claim for a first-team place.
Why is Joe Ford in Steve Diamond's doghouse?
I'm being honest when I say I've been less than enamoured with Joe Ford's few cameo appearances for Sale this season, yet in him we have a young, English, Fly-Half who is likely already the best goal-kicker at the club. Games which don't mean anything such as tomorrow's are perfect to give players like Ford opportunities and experience, especially at the top level of European rugby, yet Diamond has opted to play Nick Macleod at 10 instead. By now we know what the 31 year-old Macleod offers as a 10 and Ford is an intriguing albeit raw prospect for the club who could become particularly important to the team if a certain Danny Cipriani doesn't sign a new contract. I can't help but feel Diamond is wasting a perfectly good opportunity to give Ford 60 or so minutes with the first team but we will see what Ford does when he eventually comes off the bench tomorrow.
Prediction: Saracens 30 - 14 Sale Sharks - This was my prediction for last week's fixture at the AJ Bell and that proved to be way off in a surprisingly tight encounter. However with Saracens at home tomorrow and the fixture baring little significance on Sale's season now that they have already been eliminated, expect the result tomorrow to be much more one-sided than last Saturday's.
I make it that we are now 14 weeks into the current 2014/15 season which is ample time to reflect on Sale Sharks' last few months and the performances to go with it. Here I've decided to review the tape from Sale's first nine Premiership games, three European Champions rounds, and two LV Cups matches and enshrine who I believe has (and hasn't) impressed this season in a handy list form.
*Note* This article is solely for player's playing above or below the expectations set of them prior to the beginning of the season. For instance, Dan Braid, whilst impressive in all his performances this season, is playing at the high level that Sale fans have come to expect of him so therefore will not be found on the 'Impressing' list. However lets get the bad out of the way first:
Alberto Di Marchi - Oh dear. The Italian international squad's first-choice Loosehead was supposed to shore up Sale's depleted prop depth, log big minutes at the scrum and allow the ageing and progressively ineffective Eifon Lewis-Roberts to be used more sparingly. Instead Di Marchi appears to have forgotten how to scrum since moving to Manchester; being frequently penalised and looking over-matched against Premiership-quality opposition which has forced ELR to play upwards of 70 minutes a game. And now a wrist injury looks set to keep him out on the sidelines for the next six weeks. In Di Marchi's defence, he's an absolute wrecking ball in the loose, its just a shame he can't replicate that form when it comes time to scrum down.
Luke McLean - What is it with Sale and Italians? Di Marchi's Italian teammate, Luke McLean could very well be the biggest bust of a signing made in the Diamond-Age (I'm copyrighting that) of Sale Sharks. An expensive acquisition due to his well-renowned performances for Italy on the international stage, McLean has been overly passive in defence, pathetic challenging for the high ball and offered practically nothing with ball-in-hand although I admire his enthusiasm in acting as a 'faux-10' and first receiver when Cipriani has been taken out on a previous play. The fact that academy graduate Mike Haley has looked so good in his limited appearances by comparison has only compounded how much of a bust McLean has been so far for Sale. The last two weeks playing at 14 for Sale haven't been particularly encouraging either..
Nathan Hines - It may seem a little unfair to include Nathan Hines on the 'disappointing' section of this article but rest assured it is not for his play on the rugby pitch this year; it has been the lack of it. Hines looked a hand-in-glove fit next to Michael Paterson in Sale's second row in Sale's opening day defeat to Bath and first eight minutes the following week against Gloucester, especially as a disruptive force in the lineout, before tearing the tendons in his arm. The 37 year-old's return takes added importance now with the news Michael Paterson is set for four months out with a knee injury and he is likely to return in two weeks against Exeter. However its been a disappointing start to the season for everyone involved and I'm certain Nathan will be raring to come back as soon as possible.
Mark Cueto - An illustrious member of Sale Sharks' history, Mark Cueto has been as faithful a servant to his club as anyone since the game of Union turned professional in the 1990s. However now aged 35, Mark Cueto is simply not the same player he once was and that has never been more evident than this season. A continuing battle with injuries has left Cueto only able to participate in three games for Sale this year and in all three, Cueto's defensive play and tackling has been lacking, his kicking inconsistent and poor and it is obvious that his once-famed speed has nearly completely evaporated. At this stage, giving Cueto game-time over other wingers such as Tom Brady is doing the team a disservice.
Mike Haley - Simply put, a special player. Haley has played incredibly at fullback for Sale since replacing Luke McLean in the starting lineup for the Munster game in early October and the former Preston Grasshopper has not looked back, starting every single game since. What's not to like with Haley? A player I genuinely believe is the most promising I have ever seen pull on a Sale shirt for years; Haley is blessed with extraordinary ability and composure under the highball, mesmerising footwork, a great turn of pace and a confident demanaor that allows him to take on (and frequently) beat his man when in possession. He has been Sale's top metre maker in two of his three Premiership games and a few kicking inaccuracies aside, has looked comfortably at home against top opposition both domestically and continentally. A real pleasure to watch and someone Sale will have high hopes for long-term; Haley's upward trajectory could see him playing for England one day, and that is no exaggeration.
Mark Jennings - Able to play both Inside and Outside Centre, Jennings has impressed mightily at both positions this season for Sale, and it is only the presence of the Bash Brothers - Sam Tuitupou and Johnny Leota that are preventing Jennings from being a starter week-in, week-out. Even in the limited starts and bench cameos he has been given, Jennings looks to have made the biggest leap in ability of any of Sale's returning players in 2014. Noticeably bigger and bulkier, Jennings has really shown an increased ability in defence; tackling, breakdown work and the like but more importantly the former WJC winner has displayed an innate ability to make hard yards in contact, proving incredibly difficult to bring down without more than one defender. His running lines have massively improved also and he is often the first player in support of a break from a fellow Shark; look at Johnny Leota's try against Falcons for evidence of Jennings' developing vision and positioning. Unlucky not to be starting every week, Jennings is turning into the player many envisioned watching him at the 2012 and 2013 WJC.
Josh Beaumont - Rounding out a trio of young, English players, Josh Beaumont, returning from a year long knee injury, has made the Sale No.8 shirt his own with a series of strong performances this season. Whilst not necessarily outperforming former starter Mark Easter in terms of breaking the defensive line or getting over the gain line, Beaumont's presence at the back of the scrum as a 6ft 7, 17st back-rower has done a significant amount to stabilise a former-wobbling pack whilst his short-yard game has provided an excellent platform for the grounded style of play Sale empty under Steve Diamond. A noticeable improvement in his handling and ball-carrying from last season plus his sheer physical presence is also keeping the opposition honest in ways in which Mark Easter cannot match. Long-term, I still see Beaumont as a Lock but for the immediate future he is fitting in perfectly as Sale No.8.
Tom Arscott - An injury sustained against Harlequins has kept Arscott on the sidelines for the last few weeks and his form has admittedly dipped off after an incredibly hot-start, but still, it would be unfair to say Arscott has not impressed for Sale this season. An opening-day injury to Mark Cueto afforded Arscott the opportunity to start on Sale's left wing and Arscott has comprehensively outplayed his competition scoring five tries in seven-and-a-bit games this season, showcasing electrifying pace and energy along with dogged determination in all aspects of the game. Arscott looks much more at home on the wing as opposed to fullback where he was trialled at the end of last season and one would expect him to re-claim his place on the wing when he returns from injury in the next few weeks.