Despite a relatively gentle start to the season, Sale Sharks, with only a solitary win over Harlequins a fortnight ago to their name after three rounds, have, it is fair to say, stumbled out of the gate in 2016-17.
With the workmanlike victory over Quins sandwiched between two frankly unacceptable defeats to Newcastle (away) and Gloucester (home), Sale's top-four / top-six aspirations are in danger of already becoming unattainable, especially should they lose away to Worcester on Saturday; a fixture that could become a demarcation point for when Sale resigned themselves to a lower mid-table seeding.
And whilst the logical argument in response to this early-season doom-mongering will be "it's only been three games" - and that is a fair argument - it is important to note that Newcastle and Worcester away, along with Harlequins and Gloucester at home are fixtures against mid-to-lower table opposition that Sale should be expected to win, especially if the pre-season rhetoric of a top-four push is to be fulfilled.
It is for this reason why the start to the season has been so disappointing. Let's not mince words here; Sale should be expected to win no more than a handful of away games at most per season. Listen to any interview conducted by Steve Diamond in the past three seasons and you'll hear a coach explicitily stating that the Sharks under his regime focus predominately on winning all their home fixtures and trying to sneak a couple of away wins here and there. An outdated approach, perhaps but it is the one Sale have adopted.
Sale, barring a miracle, are not going to beat Saracens at the Allianz. Or Wasps at The Ricoh. They're probably not even going to beat Harlequins at The Stoop or Gloucester at Kingsholm such is the importance of home advantage in the modern Premiership. So when they fail to pick up a valuable away win at Newcastle and are beaten in resounding fashion by Gloucester at "Fortress AJ Bell", alarm bells should be ringing.
So where has it all gone wrong for Sale so far? The answer lies in the backline.
Sale's lacklustre start to the season has been characterised largely by an impotent attack and a misfiring backline. Five tries in three games is not a strike rate worthy of a play-off team, there are no two ways about it.
More worryingly however has been the torpid approach brought to the opening three fixtures of the season. Whilst Diamond has emphasised an even more extreme forwards-heavy approach than seen in recent years, all three sides faced have responded in resolute fashion - in short, Sale's lauded 'monster pack' haven't bullied anyone off the park yet.
But complete pack dominance isn't absolutely essential for Sale to win their fixtures. If anything, the Sharks' forwards have always offered at the very least equality in that area of the field and something of a platform to attack; it's the backline which has failed to produce.
The problems in this area are obvious; Tom Arscott (ACL) and Mike Haley (Shoulder), two integral parts of the Sale backline have missed the start of the season through long-term injury. Intriguing new signing Josh Charnley is still playing in Super League with Wigan Warriors. Peter Stringer nearly lost his front-teeth following a concussive hit in pre-season training and only returned in the second half last week against Gloucester. Inside centres Sam Tuitupou and Mark Jennings are both out indefinitely.
Most sides would struggle with the loss of three of their starting backs and a number of their rotation options but Sale's problems have been compounded with injury to both of their new fly-halves; AJ MacGinty - the Danny Cipriani replacement - has only played forty minutes so far this season and whilst understudy Dan Mugford has rose magnificently to the occasion since, he also went down with a nasty leg injury against Gloucester that ruled him ineffective for the rest of that game.
Sale's struggles therefore are completely understandable faced with such a disruptive start to the season, but that shouldn't excuse the complete lack of direction evident against Newcastle, Harlequins and Gloucester. After all, Arscott, Haley, Charnley and even Stringer's absences were not unknown to the coaching staff before the start of the season.
Yet Diamond - who I have lauded in recent years for drastically overachieving with the thinnest squad in the league - is yet to show the tactical nous to combat the unfortunate position Sale have found themselves in to start the season. Diamond's answer to a decimated backline was to place even more emphasis on the Sale pack - but teams have wised up to the Sharks' historic strength following three seasons of near-indestructibility, just look at last week's game which saw Gloucester successfully repel Sale's rolling maul five times in the first half.
The Importance of Mike Haley
One player I do not believe has received enough attention in recent weeks is Mike Haley. Haley may seem like a curious choice to shine the spotlight on given he hasn't played since dislocating his shoulder against South Africa whilst on tour with the Saxons in June. But it is only now, with the 22-year-old unavailable, that we are beginning to see the importance of his role in the Sale first team.
Byron McGuigan, the Namibian fullback brought in this season to aid Sale's backline depth, has not played poorly by any stretch. McGuigan has been solid in defence, abrasive when on the ball and his steady form is even more impressive given he only joined the team at the end of July.
However, having watched the farcical display on Friday that saw Mike Phillips moved to fly-half and Will Addison become the chief orchestrator of the backline due to the lack of a recognised fly-half option on the replacements bench, it became clear that Sale are sorely missing Haley's unique blend of skills that have seen him emerge as one of the standout fullbacks in the league after only two full seasons.
Although he's far from a typical fly-half, Haley's vision, tactical awareness and ability to break the line himself would have been the perfect antidote to Sale's attacking ills against Gloucester, especially as it would have stopped Will Addison receiving the ball in the middle of the pitch and attempt to create something, quite literally out of nothing, against a keyed-in Gloucester defence that could collapse around him.
One of the more intriguing trends over the last year has been that Haley has increasingly come into the line to act as the first receiver and the move's primary playmaker - usually on the opposite side to Cipriani awaiting the ball in a similar position. With Cipriani now in Coventry and questions marks around the long-term implications of MacGinty and Mugford's early-season injury struggles, Haley's return at the end of September / early October could very quickly serve as the catalyst for a turnaround in the Sharks' fortunes.
A Resolution on the Horizon
To return to the titular question, how can Sale fix their floundering backline, the answer unfortunately is not cut-and-dry.
Whilst acknowledging Sale's slow start to the season has been down to an attacking stratagem gone awry which in turn is the result of some simply horrendous injury luck, the resolution to Sale's backline problems is...well to wait.
MacGinty is back in training this week - Mugford also. Haley and Arscott are scheduled to be back in approximately two weeks. Charnley will arrive sometime around December. The cavalry as it were are on their way and it is now up to Sale - assembled as they currently are - to grind out a win or two before they return to full strength.
There are some encouraging signs. 19-year-old Paolo Odogwu signed from Leicester Tigers this summer has made a noticeable impact in his two starts so far (five defenders beaten against Gloucester). Will Addison has taken the added emphasis on his playmaking (and goal-kicking) skills in his stride and looks as dangerous and incisive as he did all of last season. After two anonymous showings to open the year Sam James - another player whose form is increasingly vital to the success of the Sale side - produced a sterling performance on Friday. In the same game we finally saw the Sale backline run set plays in consecutive sets for the first time this season. Granted, they were predominately simple switch plays whose overuse meant Gloucester could comfortable sit-off the initial receiver and wait for the ball to be moved wide, but considering the abysmal penetration displayed against Newcastle and to an extent against Harlequins (Odogwu and Addison aside), Diamond and Paul Deacon have at least recognised the necessity of throwing the ball around, even without some of their first-choice players.
Sale Sharks, especially under Diamond's watchful eye, are always going to be a forwards-orientated team and the start to the 2016-17 season has emphasised that emphatically. But if Sale want to avoid having their Premiership campaign derailed before it even leaves the station it is now up to Diamond, Deacon, and the collective backs division to find a way to finally click and bring back some of the scintillating free-flowing rugby that brought the crowds to their feet last season. And if it doesn't start against Worcester, it could be a long winter.
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