Last season Sale Sharks were blessed with not one, but two of their long-heralded prospects breaking through into the first team and making a substantial impact on the Premiership. I should not have to tell anyone that those players were Josh Beaumont and Mike Haley both of whom served as two of Sale's brightest spots in an up-and-down 2014-15 campaign. Whilst every season does not always allow the circumstances to align perfectly to allow players such as Messers Beaumont and Haley to make the breakthrough impact we saw from both last season, Sale's exciting pipeline of young, English talent gives the Sharks a plethora of Academy players that could, if given the opportunity, make a similar impact for Sale in 2015-16 that the likes of Beaumont, (Tommy) Taylor, (Ross) Harrison, (Will) Addison and Haley have all made over the last few years. Here I identify a few of Sale's young stalwarts who could forge their name this season.
Although the starting Hooker position is by all indications, Tommy Taylor’s to lose, Cameron Neild could still play an important role for Sale this season. Although the 20 year old’s path is blocked by Taylor and new (re)-signing Neil Briggs, Briggs has struggled to hold a down a place in the Premiership since returning from France in 2012, bouncing around between London Welsh and Leicester Tigers without making much of an impact. Should Briggs struggle to recover the form that made him such a fan-favourite in his first stint at Sale, the former England U20 representative Neild should be able to take full advantage and insert himself into the matchday twenty-three having already been indoctrinated into the Sale first team with 12 appearances last season. Also worth noting is Neild’s ability to play Flanker which could garner him more opportunities to represent the first team. As Mike Haley showed last season, a struggling veteran can provide the platform for a young prospect to force his way into the first team and Neild could find himself tasked with significant first team minutes as soon as this season.
With Sale’s worrying lack of depth beyond Vadim Cobilas at Tighthead Prop still unresolved heading into next season, although admittedly it does seem to be No.1 on Steve Diamond’s agenda for improvements, Ciaran Parker could continue his fast-tracked progress into the Sharks first team in 2015-16. Although still only 19, Parker already seems well-adapted to life in the Premiership having made a number of strong cameo appearances off the bench down the stretch of Sale’s campaign last season. Whilst not an ideal scenario, should Parker be forced into more first team action this season, his small sample size of impressive performances suggest he should be able to push on and entrench himself as a suitable Premiership front row option for Sale across 20+ appearances over a season. As with Josh Beuamont and Mike Haley last season, the larger gaps in the Sharks’ squad such as at Tighthead should provide the best opportunities for Sale’s younger talent to push through into the first team, and Parker’s ability to cover the right side of the scrum gives him a desirable ability that could make him an extremely valuable asset for Sale this season.
Perhaps Sale’s next breakout star doesn’t have to have come from the academy. Sale’s sole mid-season signing in 2014-15, Samoan international Ioane joined the club in January from Otago in New Zealand but managed only 5 appearances in a Sale shirt due to a month’s injury layoff. Ioane made an instant impact in the matches did feature in however, catching the eye as an exciting ball-carrier playing with a refreshing devil-may-care attitude to the physical toll his carrying took on his body. Blessed with deceptive speed and the previously mentioned smash-mouth running style, Ioane also impressed in England as an energetic tackler with the versatility to cover anywhere across the Backrow and as another option at the back of Sale’s dangerous rolling maul; coincidentally how he recorded his first try for the Sharks. Ioane’s credentials as a breakout candidate however have been strengthened by his form over the summer. Ioane has won a number of accolades in the past week for his performances for Samoa in this year’s Pacific Nations Cup with eye-catching displays against the USA and Fiji. Ioane’s strong international form bodes well for his prospects in his first full Premiership season, as with his ability to play both Flanker positions in addition to Number 8, Ioane should find a key fixture myself in the Sale matchday squad every week especially if Sale are unable to strengthen their options in the Second Row and therefore require somebody able to cover Josh Beaumont at No.8 should Beaumont be required to move to Lock partway through a game. Whether playing as a Number 8 able to break the defensive line or as Flanker where his defensive and breakdown ability should shine through, Ioane could become a vital component of the Sale first team this season.
One of the main reasons Sale were comfortable losing both Will Cliff and Nathan Fowles at scrum-half in the same summer was the presence of James Mitchell knocking on the door of the first team. Another England U20 representative having featured in this summer’s Junior World Championship, Mitchell is so highly rated due to his already well-developed kicking and offensive passing ability from the base of the scrum and ruck. Although still far off a finished product, Mitchell’s fast-paced and energetic style of game-management should work well in tandem with Danny Cipriani and Joe Ford in creating attacking opportunities for Sale even if his ability to threaten the edges isn’t quite as developed as desirable. Chris Cusiter’s strong showings last season as the incumbent scrum-half and Peter Stringer’s seemingly inability to age may limit Mitchell’s showings for the first team this season but Mitchell is capable of being a fixture for Sale right now if required and could thrive if given an extended run on matchdays.
One player who could stand to benefit the most from Paul Deacon’s appointment as Sale’s new Attacking coach is fly-half/inside centre Sam James who very much fits the mold of a Rugby League coach’s player. Now 21 years old and having made a handful of appearances for Sale since 2013, Sam James should finally get an extended opportunity to feature for Sale this season as the Sharks looks to bring through alternative options for their midfield. Standing 6ft 5’ with great hands and ability to kick, James’ game is very reminiscent of a Rugby League Five-eigth and he stands to learn a lot from Paul Deacon who could speed up James’ integration at 12 alongside Danny Cipriani depending on the scenario. Whether he supplants Sam Tuitupou as Sale’s go to inside centre is doubtful but James could certainly get a chance to impress in 2015-16 and if he can form some chemistry with Chris Cusiter and Cipriani, James could very quickly become the secondary creative option in the Sale backline the Sharks hoped Luke McLean could be last season.
My personal pick to be Sale's breakout star of their 2015-16 campaign, Jennings holds two key advantages over the other players mentioned on this list. First, is his experience. Having already made appearances for the Sale first team over the last three seasons, Jennings is by far the elder statesman of this group and most deeply integrated in Sale’s playing style having already cut his teeth at both Premiership and European level, improving consistently year upon year since his debut in. At 22, Jennings is now ready, both physically and mentally to step into a full-time role for Sale and should probably make around 25 appearances for the Sharks this season especially as he will be tasked with filling the void left Johnny Leota at Outside Centre to start the season with the latter away with Samoa at the RWC. The other advantage comes with his position; unlike many of the other players already mentioned who have their paths to the first team blocked by two or three experienced veterans, Jennings only has Sam Tuiutpou or Johnny Leota ahead of him in the Sale pecking order (depending on what position you see him as a better fit), both of whom advancing in age, will need to be rotated more this coming season to retain their (undisputed) effectiveness. Realistically Jennings showed enough improvement as a relentlessly physical ball-carrier at the start of last season to have been a candidate to ‘breakout’ last season, unfortunately Tuitupou and Leota’s return from injury significantly limited Jennings’ further opportunities to stake his place in the first team. This season, for the aforementioned reasons plus the potential for Jennings to cover Wing with his experience at the position from his days representing England U20s, Jennings should see significantly increased game time for the Sale first team and with continued improvement in his defensive discipline and game-management, Jennings should cement his place in the Sale midfield long term in 2015-16.