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.
Alberto Di Marchi - D
Brought in ostensibly to be Sale's first-choice Loosehead Prop, Di Marchi has been anything but, looking thoroughly overmatched by Premiership standard scrummaging despite being an Italian international and has since been replaced in starting duty by Eifon Lewis-Roberts. However in recent weeks Di Marchi's play has begun to take an upturn and his scrummaging looked more stable in the ten/fifteen minute cameos he made in relief of ELR in November before going down with a wrist injury that has kept him out since. One part of his game that has lived up to reputation however is his ability in the loose, Di Marchi is a mobile an dynamic ball-carrier especially for a prop having scored two tries for Sale so far this year. That said, it is hard not to see Di Marchi as a disappointment - simply put, a starting prop for an international team competing in the Six Nations should not be relegated to ten minutes at the end of Premiership games. Sale really need Di Marchi to step up and become a first-choice prop again in the season's second half when he fully recovers from his wrist injury.
Darren Fearn - N/A
Darren Fearn has yet to feature for Sale's first team since his move from Bedford Blues and therefore I cannot grade him for his efforts. I do not know whether it is injury, fitness or ability that is prohibiting Fearn from featuring for Sale, all I know is he is not playing.
Shalva Mamukashvili - C-
Brought in as emergency cover at hooker after both Tommy Taylor and Marc Jones went down with injuries before/at the start of the season, Mamukhavili's first start in a Sale shirt was a lineout horror show against Gloucester at Kingsholm in September. However considering he'd only been in the country for four days at that time and spoke very little English I'm willing to give him a pass. Since then, Mamukashvili has feature sporadically as Marc Jones returned from injury and has played the brunt of the minutes available at hooker and his playing time will further decrease when Tommy Taylor is back to full fitness. Mamukhasvili has certainly filled a crucial role whilst Sale's depth at hooker was decimated to start the season even if he's never particularly stood out in games. The lineout has run better with him as the thrower for the most part in the last few weeks and he gets through a tremendous amount of work on the floor as befitting an Eastern European player I have observed but really he was only brought in to tide the team over until the more influential Jones and Taylor returned.
Nathan Hines - C+
Its been something of a frustrating season for Nathan Hines and Sale Sharks. Brought in to add veteran experience to the team and allow Michael Paterson a little bit more freedom in the Sharks' second row, Hines was only 88 minutes into the 2014/15 season (8 minutes into Sale's second game of the year vs Gloucester) before a torn bicep put him on the sidelines for three months. Hines has since returned and featured prominently in Sale's last three games against Saracens, Exeter and Leicester but the loss of three months of game-time, along with an injury to Michael Paterson has forced Steve Diamond to put a pin in his plans of a Hines-Pato second row pairing. In the games Hines has been fit to feature in however there have been encouraging signs; Hines is a consistent challenger at opposition lineouts and disrupts their throws extremely well , the Sale scrum has been strengthened by his presence and his veteran savvy at the breakdown has seen him score two well-taken close range tries in the last three weeks including a magnificent swan dive over the Saracens try-line defence three weeks ago. Indeed Hines has played as well as could be expected when he was brought in from Clermont however it is the unfortunate lack of gametime because of injury that brings his rating down.
Magnus Lund - A
A surprise summer addition that came with Biarritz's relegation to the Pro D2, Magnus Lund was not the Kurtley Beale-type figure many speculated Sale's mystery signing was to be, however Lund's form for Sale has been nothing short of superstar like. Easily the pick of Sale's summer signings, Lund has been immense for Sale often rotating with Dan Braid and Dave Seymour as part of a 'three 7s' axis and providing admirable depth when both have been on the shelf with injury. Lund has done it all for Sale this season - he's scrummaged well, been of one both the Premiership and European Champions Cup's top tacklers (he leads the latter competition in that statistic), served as a back-of-lineout option and put together some barnstorming runs playing almost like a No.8. Lund has already proved himself as being one of the savviest pickups of Steve Diamond's second tenure as Director of Rugby and a multi-year extension seemingly beckons for the former England international (he was initially only signed to a single-year deal).
Chris Cusiter - B
Drafted in to replace the Bristol-bound Dwayne Peel, Scottish international Chris Cusiter has been a divisive figure amongst Sale supporters this season. Some have seen him as the perfect replacement for Peel and then some - both are experienced heads with international credentials who share a similar style of play and additionally Cusiter has built up an exciting rapport with halfback partner Danny Cipriani. Others however have been less enamoured with Cusiter's performances in a Sale shirt citing a lack of a breakout threat around the breakdown, average box-kicking and the improving form of scrum-half understudy Will Cliff whilst Cusiter has been away with Scotland. Personally I am in the former camp. Is Cusiter Will Genia? No of course not, but for me Cusiter has been a hand-in-glove fit for Sale's style of play, operating extremely well behind Sale's pack and making excellent decisions in when to speed up or slow down play. Despite relatively few games together, there is an obvious harmony between Cusiter and Sale's central playmaker Cipriani and their connection has lead Sale to be one of the highest-scoring teams in the Premiership this season. Admittedly there have been relatively few successful breaks from Cusiter (he lacks the speed to be truly dangerous in that area) allowing defences to guard away from the ruck and recover their line and his box-kicking pales to Cliff (the one area I see Cliff as having a distinct advantage over Cusiter) but for the most part Cusiter has been a very good pickup for Sale and one of the few who have featured consistently in the first team on form alone.
Luke McLean - F
You can't start a career with a new club any worse than Luke McLean did at Sale. Less than 60 seconds into Sale's opening game of the season, McLean completely misread a George Ford cross-field kick, allowing Anthony Watson to take the ball cleanly and waltz in under the posts past a bewildered Tom Brady. Initially I was happy to give McLean the benefit of the doubt, he was after all the crown jewel of Sale's summer signings, a highly distinguished International fullback who many have long regarded as one of the few bright spots in a mediocre Italian national team. But the mistakes kept coming. Shockingly uncomposed underneath the high ball, a poor tackler, over eager in the line and relatively anonymous with ball-in-hand, McLean has been a bust for Sale whether at fullback or wing and his position as starter has been usurped by academy graduate Mike Haley who's been everything McLean has not.
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