Sale's first foray into the inaugural Kings Of The North pre-season tournament began with a resounding six-try, 36-22 victory over Newcastle Falcons on a sunny North-Eastern afternoon last Sunday.
Although I wasn't privvy to see the game in-person - Newcastle is a long way to go for a preseason game after all - I am lead to believe the diminutive flyer that is trialist Nev Edwards stole the show with two tries (the second of which, according to the MEN's Neil Leigh, saw Edwards showcase footwork that "wouldn't be amiss from Strictly Come Dancing") in addition to some good work recovering a loose ball from a kick downfield to aid Mark Jennings' 54th minute try, in what was considered overall a sparkling, 80-minute performance.
For Edwards, now confirmed to be on trial with the Sharks following a sudden appearance in Sale's squad for the Premiership Sevens a fortnight ago, it was close to a perfect performance as he looks to secure a full-time gig in South Manchester. Indeed Sale's is a squad that noticeably lacks game-breaking pace in its backline, something Edwards showed he possesses in spades on Sunday, as he also has over the last three weeks.
All in all it was a great weekend for the 27 year-old who certainly put his hand up in a position Sale are looking to strengthen ahead of the 2015/16 season.
However I think it is fair to say we shouldn't start believing Nev Edwards is the solution to the problems Sale currently have in their back-three. In fact that solution probably isn't even a member of the Sharks at the moment.
Having lost Mark Cueto to retirement and given Luke McLean back to Italy, Sale's current corps of players able to play as either wingers or at fullback stands as perilously as a ballerina on a cliff edge.
Yes there is Will Addison, Tom Arscott and Mike Haley as the de facto first-choice trio - three players, albeit at different stages of their development, capable of producing attacking, tactically and individually defensive performances meriting starting spots in a top-six side. But beyond those three there is precious little in the way of genuine high end talent for a team with goals as lofty as Sale's this season, especially as both Cueto and McLean's departures - who for the sake of argument I would class as "top-six calibre" - have not been off-set by any new additions to the Sharks' backline.
Looking especially at the current wings in the Sale squad which is unlikely to change much before the new season begins, beyond Addison and Arscott there is Tom Brady; a serviceable Premiership player but whose true value lies in the depth he provides as a backup/rotational option. Phil Mackenzie; a Canadian international with great foot-speed and acceleration but not much else, hence why he has made only three Premiership starts for Sale in two years at the club. John O'Donnell; a 22 year-old alternating his time between the Jets and the Sevens circuit and who is yet to make his senior debut. The aforementioned Edwards; a 27 year-old specialist Sevens player whose experience playing the 15-man game amounts to a string of appearances for Rosslyn Park in National League 1 last season and Tim Jeffers; arguably the pick of the bunch, a soon to be 21 year-old capable of playing either at wing or fullback who impressed during the pre-season sevens although he to is yet to turn out for the Sale first team.
Now do any of those players come close to offering what Addison and Arscott offer the Sale first team? Of course not. You can make the argument that Brady is not too far off their level, and whilst its true that at only 24 (with over 100 appearances already) there is some potential and experience for Brady to utilise as part of the first team. However Brady's lack of a world-class skill in any defined area of the game makes his ceiling that much lower than say Addison, who excels as a tackler, making line breaks and who can also kick very well tactically.
What is especially worrying however is that Addison's fragility and carefully repaired physique having suffered two career-threatening knee and back injuries means that a half-season trip to the treatment table is unfortunately never further away for Addison than a foot caught on a bobble on the pitch. As mercurially talented as Addison is (he'd be playing for England now if he could've stayed injury free) that fragility unfortunately means that he simply cannot be relied upon to be available to play week-in, week-out at the highest level. Furthermore, the failure to replace Italian fullback Luke McLean also means that Sale's other first-choice winger in Tom Arscott is the only other option Sale can comfortably roll out at 15 should injury or loss of form befall incumbent Mike Haley. There are simply too many variables that could occur for the Sale coaching brass and fans to believe Sale's optimum back-three of Addison, Arscott and Haley will be available to play every week this season (and thats before even mentioning burnout and fatigue).
In truth, winger is currently the weakest position in the Sale Sharks squad (so long as Brian Mujati one day, finally, maybe gets confirmed as another Tighthead Prop to add to the team). Although Sale's second row should still be viewed with some trepidation, the addition of Bryn Evans to the experienced pairing of Jonathan Mills and Andrei Ostrikov, and the promotion of England U18s and likely U20s representative George Nott means the 'donkey row' should theoretically be able to hold up, especially when the option of moving Josh Beaumont forward from the backrow is factored in. (Apparently Vilhami Fihaki played very well on Sunday suggesting that he could very well play a bigger role in relief of Beaumont at No.8 this season for Sale).
Indeed, if Sale are to make a big post-world cup recruitment splash as has been furiously implied over summer, it has to be to address the lack of options on their wings. I'm not asking for Julian Savea. Arscott and Addison are a deadly try-scoring pair with a combined skillset able to cover anything thrown at them in this year's Premiership. They're fine as Sale's go-top pairing. Tom Brady is fine as a fourth option. But what Sale really lack is another winger, capable of rotating and substituting for Arscott/Addison/whoever every other week whatever the situation, with the game-changing nous to ensure Sale have some lethal attacking options for Danny Cipriani to feed every week and perhaps some defensive ability and responsibility thrown in for good measure.
I look at Worcester's signing of Cooper Vuna, or Newcastle's recruitment of Sinoti Sinoti and I can't help but think that's the baseline quality of player Sale should be looking to add as some genuine competition for Addison and Arscott. I even wonder with the players departing Carrington and the smaller-scale replacements Sale have opted for in the last nine months, could there possibly be some money available to aim even higher? I don't know. In truth, I don't know exactly who Sale could lure to the North-West or the budget they have available to do so.
But I do know if Sale are serious about being a top-six side again this season, the lack of quality behind Tom and Will needs addressing. And I also know that bringing Nev Edwards onboard isn't the solution.