Two down, three to go.
The busiest day of Sale’s season off the pitch thus far took place Tuesday with a trifecta of announcements.
First, Sale announced that Lock Andrei Ostrikov had re-signed with the club on a two-year-extension, in a deal that will keep him at the club until summer 2019 at the latest.
Two hours later, scrum-half Mike Phillips formally announced his retirement from professional rugby with his solitary season with Sale ultimately proving his last in the game.
Not content to finish the day on a low note however, Sale then revealed that they have signed Stade Français Flanker/Number Eight Jono Ross on a three-year-contract.
Got all that? Great, let’s start with Ostrikov.
Ostrikov’s contract status has been ambiguous for a number of seasons so whilst a potential departure from the club hasn’t been mooted this season, the news that he has extended his time with the club is welcome nonetheless.
Ostrikov was one of Steve Diamond’s first signings upon the latter’s return to Sale Sharks and, because of his late start to professional rugby, Ostrikov’s influence on the Sale pack has only grown incrementally season-upon-season.
However, now 29 and set to enter his seventh and eight seasons at the club, re-signing Ostrikov is an astute move. With both himself, Bryn Evans, George Nott and Josh Beaumont all signed with the club until 2019 at least, Sale now have the luxury of utilising a consistent pairing/rotation at second row, a consistency lost in recent years because of the substantial turnover at lock the Sharks have endured.
Furthermore, with the immediate future of fellow Lock Jonathan Mills still unresolved and Josh Beaumont likely moving to Lock full-time from next season (more on that momentarily), ensuring Ostrikov remained a Shark was pivotal since he is the closest thing to a second row ‘enforcer’ Sale currently have on their books. Whilst Ostrikov’s game isn’t akin to say, Jim Hamilton’s, his considerable physicality and weight should continue to offset the more athletic and lightweight locks he’ll be rotated with over the next two seasons.
Regardless of what happens with Mills, by re-signing Ostrikov Sale can now go into next season confident they have at least four Premiership-calibre locks (Evans, Ostrikov, Beaumont and Nott) on their books capable of handling the rigours of a full Premiership season.
Indeed it is with an eye on Sale’s second row depth next season that we should interpret the club’s other signing of the day - Jono Ross.
Let’s get this out of the way first - Jono Ross is a superb signing.
A three-year contract for a 26-year-old South African flanker capable of playing number eight is an impressive coup in of itself, especially since Sale have been able to capitalise on the uncertainty surrounding Stade Français post-failed merger and get Stade and Ross to agree to end the player’s contract three years early!
Simply put, such a move should be seen as a glaring indication of Sale’s newfound financial muscle and ambition.
But equally impressive is that in Ross, Sale have found another player who will fix two of their most pressing on-field issues from this season. Linking up with fellow South African Josh Strauss, Ross will help the Sharks overcome their lack of ball-carrying prowess in the back-five, and bring the on-field leadership and direction Sale have lacked at times in 2016-17, having captained both Stade Français and the Blue Bulls from an early age.
If nothing else, Sale have managed to lure an extremely talented player in his prime out from a lucrative contract in France and add another player to their growing collection of players harbouring serious England international ambitions (Ross’ grandmother is English and he is from an English-speaking community in South Africa).
But in addressing the bigger picture, the addition of Ross and Strauss all but seals a full-time move to Lock for Josh Beaumont.
Regardless of how Ross and Strauss are rotated between blindside flanker and Number Eight next season (both are capable of playing either position), one imagines the tactical decision to sign two backrowers rather than add another lock ahead of 2017-18 indicates Diamond envisions Beaumont making a full transition to play Lock from next season onwards.
Truthfully, looking at the squad as currently constructed, this is a shrewd move to make since it ensures Sale’s three best ball-carriers are on the field together at the same time, with Beaumont (and Ross) also able to cover Strauss at No.8 when the latter is on international duty with Scotland and Sale’s lineout efficiency not threatened by omitting Beaumont from the starting lineup.
Indications made by England coach Eddie Jones meanwhile suggest the England national setup (of which Beaumont is currently on the periphery) also see Beaumont’s international future in the second, as opposed to the back row.
Beaumont’s move there full-time therefore is a pragmatic decision on both the player and club’s part since it increases Beaumont’s chances of future England recognition as the national team begins to transition in personnel towards the 2019 World Cup.
Whilst the jury is still out on whether Beaumont can be as effective at Lock as he has been at No.8 for Sale over the last three seasons – with an expectation that he will have to add weight in order to more successfully anchor the Sale pack during scrums – Beaumont has the prerequisite athleticism and size to press his case as an international-calibre lock. But his transition to the second row, in addition to re-signing Ostrikov and the signings of Strauss and now Jono Ross, should facilitate a more rounded, mobile and assertive Sale pack for next season, one that will hopefully compliment the star backline additions the Sharks are now eying to re-assert themselves as a top-six Premiership team.
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