In a marked departure from the usual method of announcing incoming players, Sale picked 3pm on Tuesday afternoon, after months of radio silence, to finally publicise the news that Will Cliff and Marc Jones will be re-joining the club on two-year-contracts ahead of the 2017-18 season.
Given that a large segment of fans have been publicly frustrated about Sale’s apparent lack of transfer activity, specifically with regard to the “four or five world-class signings” Steve Diamond suggested the club will look to bring in to boost the club after a disappointing 2016-17 season, the news that the ex-Sharks hooker and scrum-half will be joining up with the club next season is underwhelming to say the least.
The signings themselves are peculiar and shouldn’t receive a passing grade just because they’re two former players ‘returning home’ as the official press release states. Whilst Will Cliff theoretically fills one of the two scrum-half spots presumably set to be vacated by Peter Stringer and Mike Phillips’ retirements, Cliff doesn’t constitute a clear upgrade on either and has often found himself outside of the matchday 23 for Bristol this season, a team likely to be relegated from the Premiership in two months’ time.
Cliff is a serviceable (re-)signing if his primary role is as a Challenge Cup spot starter and a backup for a more dynamic incoming scrum-half, but he unequivocally cannot be expected to be the impetus for Sale’s (hopeful) return to the top-six. One hopes this does not constitute the end of Sale’s half-back recruitment.
Meanwhile, whilst Jones is an objectively better player at his respective position and was a more significant loss for Sale when both announced their intention to leave the club, his signing comes at one of the few positions Sale have an impressive level of Premiership-calibre depth.
Even if, as suggested, Neil Briggs is set to retire from active duty to take up a role as an academy coach, at hooker Sale already have Rob Webber who has proven this season to have been an astute pickup and will go into next season as the team’s incumbent and Cameron Neild (who signed a four-year contract extension at the beginning of the season) who has often reiterated his desire to convert to hooker in the long-term. Sale also have current England U20 hooker Curtis Langdon coming through the academy who will also factor into the club’s long-term plans.
Jones’ experience and physicality will be welcomed back into the Sharks’ fold in a backup role, especially it indicates that Webber will no longer be forced to play close to 80 minutes each week as he is currently. But whilst adding depth to a squad so frequently ravaged by a lack of serviceable Premiership options is always a plus, it comes with the caveat that Jones’ return will stunt Langdon’s development at the ages in which he will be expected to begin breaking into the first team (20 and 21), and also keeps Neild in a crowded Sharks backrow. How the coaching staff manage all four talented players will be instrumental in ultimately determining whether adding Jones was an unnecessary move.
Indeed, these signings indicate a level of desperateness on Sale’s behalf. Neither come remotely close to the ‘world-class’ moniker touted by Diamond and given how well Sale have coped in the two seasons since their respective departures, Dimes’ eagerness to bring both back is puzzling. Instead their re-signings is perhaps more indicative of Dimes’ resentment in having originally lost both players to larger contract offers at Bristol and despite now theoretically having the means to lure better quality players to the club, Dimes is vindictively pursuing the players that previously spurned the ‘northern powerhouse’ project he had been trying to build.
Jones and Cliff are not bad signings and both, in backup roles, will be perfectly functional for a Premiership club. The fact that both will also provide the club with academy credits and bolster the squad's weekly EQP numbers is also a useful bonus. But neither are remotely close to world-class, neither move the needle for a team in desperate need of difference-makers and neither will help recuperate the thousands of lost fans that the club is ostensibly planning to target next season as part of their marketing strategy.
With a number of ‘international’ signings set to be announced shortly, Sale fans should not lose hope that significant investment is coming into the squad next season. But after nearly three months since the transfer period opened – and punctuated only by a hasty and clearly undesired announcement of Josh Strauss after BBC Scotland pre-emptively disclosed his signing – this is hardly the news Sale fans have been waiting for.
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