Early on Monday morning, Sale Sharks suddenly announced the oft-rumoured signing of Bath’s England international hooker Rob Webber on a two-year-deal.
This was particularly noteworthy for two reasons. For one, the announcement of Webber’s impending arrival made him the first player to officially sign onto the Sharks ahead of the 2016-17 season. Secondly, it all but confirmed that current Sale stalwart Tommy Taylor was leaving the club to join Premiership rivals Wasps.
Sure enough only three hours later (funny how these things coincide isn’t it?), Wasps confirmed the 24-year-old Taylor will join ahead of next season, the duration of his contract was not announced.
There is a lot to unpick here but we must start with the obvious – this is a net loss for Sale.
Tommy Taylor is a key linchpin of both Sale’s lineout and pack and his influence is a major factor why the Sharks’ set-piece has been one of the best across the entire Premiership, if not Europe, this season.
Taylor’s accuracy as a thrower and ability to strike the ball in the scrum is nearly unparalleled and his performances in a blue shirt this year has seen him compete directly with Saracens’ Jamie George for the title of form English hooker.
The development of Taylor’s skillset since taking over starting hooker duties with the departure of Marc Jones last season has been a pleasure to watch and the former was desperately unlucky to miss out on a place in Eddie Jones’ 30-man squad for this year’s Six Nations.
Its not worth sugar-coating: if it came down to a straight decision between Taylor and Webber I’d take Taylor 10 times out of 10. Webber, at 29 and excluded from England selection a few weeks back, has probably won the last of his England caps and has struggled in recent seasons to recapture the form that earned him his international credentials upon initially moving to Bath.
Taylor meanwhile should have a long international career ahead of himself if he continues on his current trajectory and its hard to argue that Taylor hasn’t been the superior player at his position this, or maybe even last season.
But it’s not all doom and gloom for Sale.
international experience does still count for something and Webber’s 16 caps are indicative of his international quality and will undoubtedly aid future understudy Cameron Neild’s development. Sale’s latest signing is also a strong scrummager and is an effective operator in the loose – both as a tackler and as a ball-carrier. There are some concerns over Webber’s accuracy as a lineout thrower but having spoken to some Bath supporters, that could be put down to Bath’s complex system of lineout calls.
And perhaps we haven’t factored in what we will soon have to start quantifying as the ‘Diamond effect’. In his five years since returning to the club, the Sale Director of Rugby has shown an astounding ability to eke the very best out of his players – especially forwards – and given the importance of Taylor to this current side, one feels Diamond will not have made his choice of replacement lightly. Webber plays in a style very reminiscent of Marc Jones, and it is one that should mesh immediately with the style Diamond has his forwards operate.
Finally, it was pleasing to see Sale respond to the latest exodus of young talent with a substantial, news-generating signing. Although it is not always possible to sign a Premiership-ready player to replace a young leaving talent, in this instance, with Neil Briggs underperforming and Cameron Neild not ready to be a starting Premiership hooker, a ‘big-name’ replacement was an absolute necessity, especially if Sale want to downplay the negativity of Taylor leaving.
Webber is probably the biggest name Sale have signed for a number of years, its just a shame it had to come as a result of losing Sale’s most talented youngster yet.
Lewis Hughes has heard Sale’s next signing is definitely going to be Steffon Armitage. Follow @SharkTankRugby on Twitter for more news, analysis and opinions on all things Sale Sharks