Eight yellow cards in the last four games.
21 points scored total in the same timespan.
One try scored in December.
Seven consecutive losses.
Whichever way you want to spin the numbers, it makes for bleak, nay, embarassing reading for Sale fans.
Friday night at Franklin's Gardens represented the greatest opportunity yet for the Sharks to snap their recent slump. Yet up against a Northampton Saints side shot of confidence after a two-legged walloping at the hands of Leinster and facing even more questions than the visitors in regards to their own respective poor run of form in recent months, Sale again reaffirmed their distressing lack of competitiveness this season, slumping to a 24-5 defeat.
As delightful as it was seeing Denny Solomona leap salmon-like through the air to score a wonderful try in the right corner on 65 minutes, Sale's one genuine flash of brilliance on Friday was ultimately meaningless given that the Sharks were consistently overwhelmed by Northampton's rolling maul, failed to convincingly challenge the Saints lineout or indeed score any additional points on their eight other trips to the Saints' 22.
Ben Foden dancing over the try-line after three minutes set the tone for another miserable evening in an increasingly dismal season, Tom Wood doubling the Northampton lead after 28 minutes. Sale subsequently controlled possession and territory for the majority of the time remaining but butchered opportunity after opportunity (eight of them to be precise) as they approached the Northampton try area, Solomona's sensational touchdown aside. MacGinty missed the extras for that score and Sale never truly threatened again - as the clock went dead it was ex-Shark Luther Burrell who crashed over for the game's final try after James Mitchell, shortly after taking a quick-tap penalty, threw the ball to Saints' fly-half Stephen Myler in his own 22 who in turn fed his teammate for the type of simple score that has eluded Sale all season.
Any recurring reader of this site will have read these words ad nauseum over the past six weeks but Friday's defeat was the clearest indicator yet of the fundamental issues that continue to plague Sale's squad - a lack of ball-carriers in the pack, glacial delivery from scrum-half, an absence of creativity and structure in the backline.
Once again Sale's rolling maul was emphatically nullified all-game long and with that tactic rendered impotent, the Sharks resorted to ineffective one-out runners who endevoured industrially but simply lack the physicality or pace to make any serious indents into the Saints' defensive line.
For all of his enthusiasm and excitingly reckless abandon, it is clear that TJ Ioane is not suited to play either as a number eight or as Sale's first option as a ball-carrier. Ioane's style of carrying, low to the ground, leading with the shoulders and with the ball in hand, is simply not conducive to making the impact carries that punch holes in opposition defences that either a no.8 or a first option are required to do. Ahilst Ioane has been one of Sale's most laborious and consistent players this season, his impact, as a platform building carrier and breakdown jackal, is being negated by utilisation in a role which doesn't fit his skillset.
And Sale's lack of pack-provided impetus was once again compounded by the stagnancy of ball provided by Mike Philips. The issues with Philips' place in the Sale first-team are obvious to all - the slow decision-making at the base of the ruck, the lack of physical speed on his passes, his tendency to turn his back to the ruck which encourages the opposition to pressure his protection, further delaying the delivery of the ball, his lack of foot speed to actually get to the ruck and his over-tendency to box-kick despite the presence of a dropped-back fly-half. Philips clearly still has the capapcity to play at Premiership level but only behind a Saracens or an Exeter - he is a terrible fit in a team whose forwards cannot bully the opposition backwards and who require quick ball to negate said disadvantage.
With Peter Stringer likely out for the season with an ACL injury, Philips' acquisation looking more and more like an expensive flop each week, and the relative inexperience of James Mitchell, it is imperative Sale make a mid-season acquisation for a scrum-half who can instantly step in as the incumbent in that position.
There are further issues that were once again exposed on Friday but with the main two which need the most urgent addressing already spoken of and the holiday season in full swing it would be disheartening to dwell on them for too long. So in short; there now exists genuine concern that AJ MacGinty does not provide the ability as a distributor to function as Sale's first-choice fly-half. His in-play kicking shows promise as does his ability as a ball-carrier but despite lengthy spells of possession on Friday, MacGinty could not orchastrate the backline into an incisive or dangerous pattern. The lack of creative vision or awareness eminent in Sale's attack this season can not rest solely on MacGinty's shoulders but as first-choice fly-half and de facto playmaker, his must bear the brunt of it.
On the plus side, Harrison-Webber-Aulika as a trio once again all had strong performances in both the loose and the scrum and have continued to provide a somewhat stable and rested influence on the Sale pack despite the current losing streak. Furthermore, Cameron Neild and Magnus Lund both impressed in the back-row and if all else fails, AJ MacGinty showed he has a potential future at scrum-half.
But there is no denying that Sale are in the midst of arguably their worst run of form since the horror start of 2012-13 and confidence is low. A win against Bristol on New Year's Day would immediately undo most of the negativity that has permeated the club in recent weeks and ensure that a touted relegation battle from the club's more pessimistic fans does not come to fruition. However whilst losses to Saracens, Wasps and even Exeter were forgivable, Friday's loss, against a team that was flaunted in pre-season as one of Sale's domestic rivals, is the latest indication that this is quite simply a team that will not contend for the top-six this season and is instead destined for, and in need of, a proper rebuild.
Sale's best performance in two months ensured the return fixture of their home-and-home series with Saracens in Champions Cup Pool 3 was a far more competitive outing than last week's 50-3 loss at Allianz Park, however three yellow-cards to Rob Webber, Bryn Evans and TJ Ioane undermined an encouraging outing which disappointingly ended with Saracens as comfortable 24-10 winners, courtesy of 19 points from Owen Farrell and a late Nathan Earle try.
Unfortunately, as convenient as it would be to blame referee Andy Brace for the Sharks' loss - which extremely flattered an only marginally superior Saracens side - upon review Sale did proverbially shoot themselves in the foot, the only real oversight from the officials being the lack of punishment for Owen Farrell's late/in-the-air/no-arm tackle on Mike Haley directly proceeding Ioane's sin-binning.
Sale were warned repeatedly regarding maul infringements before Webber intentionally brought a Saracens rolling maul down in the first-half, and as asinine as the rule is, Evans's knock-on did not constitute a deliberate attempt with reference to the letter of the law. Ioane's penalisation meanwhile was a legitimate dangerous, no-arm tackle even if the Samoan's devastated reaction on the sideline indiciated there was not a semblence of maliciousness in his actions.
Farrell meanwhile can consider himself extremely lucky given that his equally clumsy tackle could have been flagged as any combination of a high tackle, late tackle, or a dangerous tackle with no attempt to wrap the arms. That is not to say that Farrell's (non)-castigation was the sole reason why Saracens left the AJ Bell as clear winners on Sunday but it did compound the frustration emanating around the stadium given that until the latter two yellow-cards, the Champions Cup tie had been an enthralling back-and-forth contest.
Despite having all-but-been eliminated already from the competition, Sale rebounded from a perilously poor run of form in recent weeks to produce a sterling, cohesive and ambitious performance one that at times looked dangerously close to unsettling the current Premiership and European champions - even one packed with a plethora of international superstars.
The Sharks' backline - led by Josh Charnley and a far more distributive AJ MacGinty -looked adventurous and incisive, combining set-plays with some opportunistic line-breaks and broken-field running. Despite the greasy conditions, Sale's ball-playing skills appared to return with aplomb, Tom Arscott and Sam James combining superbly to feed Bryn Evans for the Sharks' late, conciliatory touchdown.
Most pleasingly, however was that it appeared the advice dispensed on this very site earlier in the week has been taken on-board by the Sharks' coaching staff with MacGinty twice punching kicks cross-field for debutant Denny Solomona to race onto, even if the New Zealander ultimately couldn't quite gather the loose ball(s). Regarding Solomona on his union debut, despite having few chances to show what he can offer ball-in-hand, the 23-year-old looked effervescent throughout; his pace and aerial ability already proving to be attributes the Sale attack will look to exploit with regularity, and his defence at an impressive standard for the 15-man code. Overall, Sale looked refreshingly unpredictable with ball-in-hand against Saracens and against less stringent opposition, will have no trouble keeping the scoreboard ticking over.
Elsewhere, the Sale Monster Pack™ finally reared its head, buoyed by outstanding performances in particular from Ross Harrison and Halani Aulika, who combined twice to push the Saracens' scrum off its own ball. For pehaps the first time this year both the Sale pack and backline appeared to be clicking along with the usually efficient lineout, only for the former to find itself reduced to seven men for over a third of the game.
Saracens were still the superior side whose clinical territorial control of the game began to emerge late in the first-half and who would have been further clear by sixty minutes had it not been for two uncharacteristic Farrell misses off the tee, but given the emphatic nature of Sale's last two results to Saracens (13-28 and 50-3), this was a result which showed some promising signs for Sale's season.
To run Saracens this close (and to have been in with a genuine chance of snatching an unlikely result had a) the ball bounced more kindly for Solomona with the Sharks down 9-3 and b) the team not been shown three yellow cards) suggests the team may have finally turned a corner and found a starting XV capable of overturning a currently volatile Northampton Saints side next Friday at Franklin's Gardens.
Honourable Mentions: Andrei Ostrikov, Magnus Lund, Cameron Neild, James Mitchell.
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With Peter Stringer now 39 and Mike Phillips, currently only on a one-year deal at Sale and who turns 35 before the start of the 2017-18 season, both likely to retire at season's end and James Mitchell yet to set the world alight despite expanded first-team exposure this season, I fully expect Sale to have an entirely new partnership at scrum-half for next season.
One of Sale's biggest pitfalls this season has been the lack of pace at the scrum-half position - with neither Stringer nor Phillips quick enough to break around the fringes on half-way, opposition defences are comfortable spreading out at the ruck which in turn puts greater pressure on the Sale backline who find themselves up against a defensive line with more time to prepare positionally.
Any scrum-half Sale sign then needs to rectify the currently lack of line-break potential. At 29, Joe Simpson might not have the same step as a few seasons ago, but the Wasps' scrum-half is still game-breakingly quick and would also offer Sale some top-tier game-management skills that have come with ten years at the top level - he would be an ideal fit. Ruan Pienaar at Ulster would likewise have been an astute signing but has since been signed up by Montpellier.
With public knowledge of contracts and contractual situations at a premium in rugby, it is therefore hard to say excatly who Sale should (or could) sign, but a quick, attacking threat like Simpson backed up by either a talented prospect (say Sam Hidalgo-Clyne) or an experienced, tactical kicker (Pienaar) would be the preference.
Take your pick:
A large part of Sale's attacking woes this season have stemmed from a lack of familiarity between members of the backline which has been compounded by the losses of AJ MacGinty, Sam Tuitupou and Mike Haley for extended periods of time. This has started to change in recent weeks, but the lack of incisive, free-flowing rugby is a sympton of an inability to assemble the presumptive first-choice backs and have them train and practice together for long parts of the season thus far.
Furthermore, of the players Sale have to pick there appears to be a clash in styles. MacGinty hits the line himself too frequently and doesn't distribute the ball wide enough to bring in the players outside him. The second distributor in the line, Sam James, meanwhile is too isolated at outside centre to serve that particular role but on the occasions he has moved inside, Will Addison's enthusiasm to attack the line then off-load means once again the ball fails to reach the wingers with any frequency.
This mis-match of styles has been exacerbated by the apparent lack of attacking strategy in place - Sale have been guilty, on multiple occasions, of having an embarassing lack of shape in the backline with players not receiving the ball at pace or being too spread out to present themselves for an off-load on the rare occasion a line-break is made. Having a retreating pack and slow distribution from the breakdown has not helped matters but Sale need a full revision of the style in which they attempt to play.
Given the players they have at their disposal, a deeper attacking line that utilises Addison, Odogwu and Charnley's collective pace to beat players to the outside - an area where Sale do have an advantage on teams - would be a welcome start as would kicking wider but shorter behind defences to stretch the line out - it is currently far too easy for teams to stand off and let Sale simply pass the ball along the line before making the tackle.
As acknowledged in the Solomona piece which went up on Tuesday, his was a recruitment that began well back in Summer and is not seen as the remedy to Sale's current woes. Thankfully with the influx of new ownership, finally signing Solomona will not inhibit Sale from strengthing the team in other areas, which are of more pressing need than wing.
Reed is, to my knowedlge, currently fit and available for selection but has found himself down the pecking order since arriving over summer. Given the lateness of his acquitisation last season it would appear Diamond only sees (and only ever saw him) as a contingency rotation/depth option.
Lock and scrum-half.
Bryn Evans is fine as half of the first-choice pair (or in a perfect, Saracens-esque world as the first option off the bench) but his natural style of play as an athletic, predominately lineout option means he is best partnered with a much bulkier lock who can handle additional ball-carrying abilities and add some weight and power to the Sharks' scrum. Josh Beaumont is better suited to the backrow, Andrei Ostrikov does not appear to be trusted by the coaching for any extended period of time and Jonathan Mills does not have the ball-playing ability. Ironically Juandre Kruger, who of course renounced his commitment to join the Sharks earlier this year, is exactly the type of player the current squad is missing.
Erstwhile, for the reasons outlined earlier, Sale are being really hurt by the lack of pace and attacking threat at scrum-half and additionally by Mike Phillips' dsitributing style which is not suited for the backs Sale currently have at their disposal. Adding someone with individual attacking creativity (read: line-break potential) and a tendency for quick distribution would prove an immediate boon for Sale.
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The worst kept secret in rugby was finally outed on Tuesday morning as Sale Sharks officially announced they had signed Castleford Tigers winger Denny Solomona on a three-year-contract.
Solomona, 23, becomes the second Rugby League star to be signed by Sale Sharks this year. Unlike Josh Charnley however, Solomona has previous experience playing Union having played the 15-man code in his native New Zealand until he was 18. Last season, Solomona broke the Super League try-scoring record touching down 42 times for the Tigers and made his debut for the Samoan international team in October of this year.
Conventional logic would dictate that all Sale fans are already aware of the details of the messy contractual debate and impending litigation between Solomona and Castleford which has loomed over the New Zealander's cross-code switch. Regardless of whether you believe Sale, Castleford, Solomona or his agent Andrew Clarke are in the wrong in this particular instance (and knowing little of the negotiations which alledgedly transpired between Sale and Castleford in August one does not feel comfortable explicitly stating which party has acted imorally, or indeed, illegally) Solomona has officially retired from rugby league - despite having two years remaining on his contract with Castleford - and is now a Sale Sharks player.
Whilst the litigation against Solomona, confirmed as being brought forward by Castleford in a statement released by the Tigers today, leaves a ominous distraction hanging over Solomona's debut in union, this is another ambitious and long-term (Sale have Solomona signed for the next three seasons), albeit high-risk move conducted by the Sharks as they look to recover from a poor run of form heading into the winter months.
This, however, is clearly a deal that has been in the works since summer and Solomona's arrival should not be expected to turn around Sale's season immediately - after all he is not the bruising, ball-playing lock/flanker the team is in such desperate need of. That said, Solomona's background in union plus his pace, athleticism and finishing ability gives Sale yet another weapon to get their backline firing again.
Most importantly, at 6ft 3' Solomona gives Sale some much needed height out on the wings - as impressive as Josh Charnley and Paolo Odogwu have been to start the season they stand at only 6ft 1' and 5ft 8' respectively. Whilst neither player is small, Sale's lack of size has been one of their major weaknesses thus far this season and Solomona gives the Sharks a genuine aerial threat that Paul Deacon's league-style attack should look to exploit. With Sale struggling to move the ball at pace through the backs in recent weeks, Solomona gives AJ MacGinty (or Sam James) the option of lofting the ball cross-field and having the New Zealander chase and compete for possession.
The Solomona signing does not come without some (on-field) questions however. Whilst the 42 try-season is a wonderful stat to trot out, as seen below a substantial number of them were walk-ins created by his Tigers teammates in the midfield. Solomona is clearly a capable, composed and robust finisher especially in tight corners, but how Solomona adjusts to the reduced space afforded to wingers in union could prove pivotal if he is to emerge as the latest player to star in both league and union.
Furthermore, exactly where Solomona fits into this current Sale side is not clear - interestingly, in the official press release announcing his signing, Solomona is touted as capable of playing wing, centre and fullback. Versatility, especially in a squad as small as Sale's, is extremely important and adding Solomona along with Charnley and Odogwu naturally allows Will Addison to move to Outside Centre on a permanent basis but with Mike Haley and Byron McGuigan (and Tom Arscott) covering fullback and the former three players in steady form, the one possible vacancy in the Sharks backline is at inside centre.
Is Sam James now required to move across to acomodate Solomona as his midfield partner or does Solomona replace Odogwu, Addison or Charnley in the starting lineup? Also, given Solomona's star-power (and the effort expounded just to get him at Sale) can you afford to keep him out of the matchday squad? Having too many quality attacking players is a nice problem for Sale to have for once but inserting Solomona into the Sharks' backline corps throws up yet more questions and possible combinations for a side who have struggled to retain any consistency or familiarity in their attacking play this season.
How Solomona is ultimately utilised by Diamond, Deacon and the rest of the coaching staff should become clearer on Sunday with Steve Diamond having confirmed Solomona will make his Sale debut against Saracens in the Champions Cup.
The jury is still out on Sale's signing of Solomona regarding its wider, cross-sport implications and unfortunately it does not appear that Castleford's case against Solomona and Sale will be resolved quickly. As exciting a talent as Solomona is, hopefully the furore surrounding his move to Sale will not prove too much of a distraction both on and off-the-field as the Sharks look to stop their slide down the table and out of Europe.
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“I don’t think it’s endeavour, it’s just about people keying in and clueing in. Whether I have got it wrong being a bit naive about picking a lot of youngsters in the team, but we need to wisen up.
"Going from a team that has finished fifth and sixth over the last five years to looking that it could be in a relegation battle, we need to pull our finger out.”
Above are two direct quotations from Steve Diamond following Sale's 3-21 loss to Exeter Chiefs on Friday night, the Sharks' third consecutive in the Premiership.
Whilst it is moderately encouraging to see Dimes place blame squarely on his team, as opposed to the referre, a conspiracy against Northern rugby or the BT Sport cameras, along with a healthy dose of self-apprasial, "pull[ing] our finger out" is not a conducive strategy to winnng rugby games.
Indeed, Friday night's loss betrayed the firm limitations of the 2016/17 Sale Sharks squad. Up against a better-disciplined, organised, and harmonious side in Exeter Chiefs, Sale's mis-matched lineup was woefully unprepared to match a team who are genuine top-four contenders.
Most disappointing about the latest 80 minutes at the AJ Bell was how, in order to secure a comfortable victory, the Chiefs never had to even contemplate leaving second gear. Three first-half tries, including two pushover efforts from rolling mauls gave Exeter a healthy lead and Sale mustered precisely nothing in response bar an early AJ MacGinty penalty. And that was the game in its totality; for all their second-half possession Sale didn't threaten the opposition tryline once and Exeter were content to kill off the game in what was possibly the dullest forty minutes of rugby witnessed for a long time.
But the ease in which Exeter won must be addressed and blame must fall upon Diamond's team selection. Despite matching up against one of the heaviest and most physical groups of forwards in the league, Diamond opted for a lightweight mobile outfit which included Josh Beaumont at lock and a backrow consiting of Cameron Neild, Ben Curry and TJ Ioane, presumably designed to outpace and outcompete their opposition in the loose. Unsurprisingly, it was an abject failure as Exeter bullied the Sale scrum and drove over with embarassing ease from two 5 metre lineouts.
The real issue however is that Diamond compounded his earlier mistake with his selection in the backline. A lightweight pack for a Friday night game in winter was a dubious decision at best but opting to then start Mike Phillips at scrum-half and leave Paolo Odogwu sat on the bench for 77 minutes showed how Diamond's unorthodox appraoch to coaching is beginning to wear thin. If, as the starting lineup suggested, the strategy to beat Exeter was to ensure breakdown superiority and play incisive counter-attacking rugby, opting to start Phillips, whose distribution is markedly slower than Peter Stringer, and leave out Sale's quickest winger is a damning indictment of the attacking schematic being implemented by Dimes and Paul Deacon. Simply put, Sale do not have the personnel to play the style of rugby that they were expected to play on Friday night, which further mystifies the decision to slim down the pack.
Unfortuntaely the issues do not end there. Whether it is Sam James or AJ MacGinty at fly-half, Sale's backline continues to look devoid of both ideas and set plays, the jackals of the team are being nullified by heavier opposition forwards, there is a distinct lack of pacy ball-carrying options in the forwards who can either make or support line breaks, the rolling maul is still yet to find its 2014-15 form and Sale have regressed to aimlessley kicking away possession for long tracts of time in a sheepish attempt to play 'territory'.
Many of these impediments are rectifiable and should eventually be amended as the season progresses but this is a statement that has been repeated with alarming regularity for the last month. Furthermore, increasing scrutiny needs to be placed on Sale's recruitment policy. Once again there are a small number of glaring issues in the Sharks team (a lack of weight in the second row, lack of a combination of pace and strength in the backrow, lack of attacking threat around the fringes at scrum-half) that the additions made over the summer should have fixed (Lou Reed, Laurence Pearce, Mike Phillips(?)) but who instead are found outside of the matchday twenty-three with regularity. And as intriguing as a signing Denny Solomona is, another converted rugby league winger is not the area Sale need to address most urgently at the moment.
Speaking of converted rugby league wingers, the sole positive from Friday was that Josh Charnley, on his full home Premiership debut, looked both exciting and industrious when afforded his limited ball-playing opportunities. We are still yet to see what Charnley can offer in broken-field open play but from the small glimpses on show against Exeter he is adapting to the fifteen-man code with exciting speed.
Next up is the small matter of a home-and-home with the regining European and Premiership champions who have conventinely regained their gluttony of international stars, in a competition which is losing importance with every Premiership loss. Unfortunately, with the manner in which Sale are currently playing, one would expect the Sharks' losing run to stretch to six games in six weeks by the time Premiership action resume against Northampton in just under three weeks' time.
Honourable Mentions: Ross Harrison, Rob Webber.
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