Ask any Sale fan who has followed the Sharks with any regularity over the last five years what has been the biggest scourge of the club in recent times and their answer will most likely fall into one of two camps. It will be either the rushed relocation of Sale's home ground from Edgeley Park in Stockport to the AJ Bell Stadium in Salford that nearly three years later is only beginning to win universal approval as the indisputable 'right' move for the club OR the mass exodus of young, English talent with genuine international aspirations that Sale have suffered through annually over the last few seasons.
I fall well into the latter camp. In 2011, Sale lost Simon McIntrye and Carl Fearns both of whom are now firmly established first team players for top-six bound Wasps and Bath respectively. Ahead of the 2012-13 season, Sale lost Luther Burrell, who has gone on to win 11 full international caps for England, to Northampton Saints. Last season Sale lost all three of Henry Thomas, James Gaskell and Rob Miller, a trio of first team players who all opted to move south for larger pay packets and better opportunities of breaking into Stuart Lancaster's England team.
Losing these six players over the last four seasons has not been apocalyptical for Sale Sharks by any means, but looking at the collective success all six have enjoyed at their new clubs does give Sale fans pause for thought about what might have been.
However compared to other seasons, Sale have actually had a strikingly more successful negotiating period this year, as their retention has gone extremely well in terms of keeping hold of their English talent. The breakout stars of this year's campaign, Josh Beaumont and Mike Haley both agreed first team contracts for the next two seasons, Tommy Taylor re-upped for an extra season in December and the darling of North-West rugby (and currently Sale's only fully-fledged England international) Danny Cipriani turned down a big money move to Toulon to continue his push for England inclusion with the club that resurrected his career.
Additionally, whilst Sale are, as of today, only losing the talents of four first team players; unlike in recent years, the impact they will have on Sale's preparations for next seasons is significantly less. Marc Jones opted for a larger paycheck and a move back closer to his native Wales by agreeing terms with Bristol Rugby, however his departure will allow Tommy Taylor to assume the responsibilities of serving as Sale's first choice hooker and accelerate Taylor's imminent surpassing of Jones as the better all-round player, perhaps as early as next season.
Joining Jones at Bristol is Will Cliff, Sale's current backup scrum half. Whilst a vocal portion of Sale fans see Cliff as being the superior scrum-half to incumbent Chris Cusiter, Cliff only objectively bests the latter at box-kicking with Cusiter's extensive experience at the top-flight level giving the Scot the advantage in most other areas of scrum half play including decision-making and passing. Cliff, despite having been a regular in and around the Sale first team since the 2010-11 season, has never been able to consistently show the ability to match Sale's ambitions and conclusively earn himself the starting scrum-half shirt. The fact that Cliff's presence in the Sale first-team also inhibits the opportunities available to two England U20 scrum-halves, Nathan Fowles and James Mitchell, both of whom look to be better long-term prospects than Cliff also suggests Sale should be able to recover well from Cliff's departure.
Perhaps the biggest loss will be Michael Paterson, who despite a fantastic, team-of-the-season first year at Sale, has found his opportunities to play in his preferred role of backrower limited since joining Sale, and Northampton's apparent desire to play him as a flanker reportedly influenced his decision to join Saints next season. However in spite of his exploits last season, Sale's form this year since Paterson went down with a knee injury has actually markedly improved with Jonathan Mills and Nathan Hines in the second row and Josh Beaumont assuming the mantle of lineout captain in running a newly uber-efficient set-piece. Sale have already had to deal without Paterson over the last four months with injury and the early results suggest Paterson's loss will not be as significant as first feared.
Finally Sale are losing Mark Cueto to retirement. A club legend and the Premiership's all-time top try scorer, unfortunately Cueto is no longer the winger he once was and his play this season has rarely exceeded mediocre as his pace and 'footballing' skills continue to decline.
However despite Sale's relative success in retaining their top, young talent this season, it could quite possibly be time to panic ahead of Sale's 2015-16 season.
One needs only to compare the ambition being shown by Sale's fellow Premiership sides in terms of player recruitment for next season to become alarmed at the lukewarm preparations Sale have made for next season so far. When the fact that the most significant arrivals into the Premiership for next season in terms of international prestige are those being made by teams vying for Sale for the final European qualification places (Exeter and Wasps) and those well below Sale in the current table (Gloucester, Harlequins and London Irish) is considered, Sale's outlook for next year becomes alarmingly bleak.
With the natural turnover of players that impacts every Premiership club each year and the notables first team losses I've already mentioned, it is fair to say that Sale, with promotion of the youngsters and academy players ready for first-team duty considered, still probably need to bring in at least six or seven Premiership quality players across a variety of positions to at the very least consolidate their current position as a club with top-six and automatic European qualification ambitions with the recruitment being made by their closest rivals.
So who have Sale brought in for next season?
And that's it.
Neil Briggs, a soon-to-be 30-year old hooker who has struggled to remain third-choice in his position for fellow top-six rivals Leicester Tigers, is the only confirmed signing for Sale ahead of the 2015-16 season.
Let's compare that with Sale's closest rivals for the top-six and the three teams immediately below Sale this season:
Now I understand that big names don't necessarily translate to improved results and that many significant signings don't pan out - one need only look at Gloucester's fluctuating form this season for proof of that. But looking at preparations for next season, all of Sale's rivals, except Sale themselves, have managed to recruit a blend of international quality players, exciting youngsters and savvy veteran players, all three of which are needed to push up the Premiership table. I'm simply unsure how Sale hope to compete with such next season having only brought in a single player this late in the domestic season (I am not counting TJ Ioane who has already featured for Sale this season).
I also do not buy into the idea of a Rugby World Cup year and the subsequent later start to the domestic season pushing back traditional transfer activity until later in the year. If that was the case, London Irish wouldn't have signed a British & Irish Lion in Sean Maitland in January or Harlequins wouldn't have finalised a deal with Australian international James Horwill back in December. Of course players and their agents will use the later start in a world cup year to give themselves more time to find the optimum deal for the player and their families, however these 'summer signings' are usually reserved for the established, (typically Southern Hemisphere) internationals hoping to make a big money move to Europe upon the conclusion of their international selection - the Will Genia types that Sale cannot hope to afford.
Also, if a team like Exeter, not one of the bigger spenders of the Premiership, can manage to get the majority of their recruitment for next season completed by April and still bring in international calibre players in a world cup year, then why can't Sale, as a team ostensibly competing at the same level? Sale have shown under Steve Diamond that as a club they are able to make astute signings from unorthodox rugby markets and lesser known players in the global rugby sphere - however the meagre amount of signings made and the lack of any notable additions (sorry Briggsy) that Sale realistically should have already made if they were serious about building on their success of this season and continuing to push for a play-off spot next season, suggest a worrying trend for the Sharks.
The good news is that historically, Sale typically operate later in the transfer market once the big spenders of Europe have made their moves - that's just the reality of Sale's situation until they can average crowds of 12,000 - and that the world cup year does mean there are many more options of international (and therefore in most cases Premiership) standard players on the market for Diamond and co. to sift through.
But there should certainly be a sense of urgency at Carrington as we head towards the final four weeks of the Premiership season. Sale have done fantastically in recent years to field a competitive, top-six calibre team right alongside clubs with much larger budgets, deeper squads and sell-out crowds in traditional union hotspots. However the investments made in recruitment by the team's mirred alongside Sale in the Premiership's mid-table this season along with that of teams who Sale have drastically out-performed this year suggest that investment in the Sale team ahead of next season is paramount if Sale hope to compete in the new, more financially driven Premiership. Despite the increasing crowds this season, Sale can't compete with the Wasps and Baths of the league, however it is imperative that they find ways to match the additions their rivals are making. Should Sale fail to make any notable additions, even with further development of their burgeoning English contingent and return to forms for their less successful signings made for this season (see: Luke McLean), the Sharks could be leapfrogged by revitalised and much deeper Gloucester or Harlequins squads and slip into the bottom two or three places in the Premiership next year especially since Sale's laughably shallow depth will likely take further blows with the likely departures of more first team players before the season ends.
Is it time to panic for Sale then? Not quite yet. Sale have a strong, cohesive squad with an exciting pipeline of English talent to supplement itself that has shown in recent years they can compete for the top-six place. However the game so to speak has changed in the Premiership and with Sale's rivals drastically improving for next season, Sale will have to match in some form or another if they hope to maintain their ambitions of European rugby and deliver on their rhetoric of finally breaking back into a playoff place.
Do Sale already have the strength in depth and talent to compete for a top-six place next season? Or are further additions needed? Tweet and follow @SharkTankRugby for more opinions and analysis.