Note: As part of Shark Tank Rugby's coverage of Sale Sharks this season, "Three Things" will be a weekly feature that will preview Sale's next fixture with specific focus on three individual aspects of the game both on and off the field.
1) How big a crowd will the match draw?
The primary reason for Sale's decision to move most of their home games this season (TV scheduling notwithstanding) to Saturdays at 2pm is one of crowds, or lack thereof.
During the last years of Sale's tenure at Heywood Road and after the team's move to Edgeley Park in 2003, Sale had predominantly played their home games on Friday nights, a schedule that initially survived the move over to the AJ Bell. However after another season of hosting less-than-desired crowds (with an average of 6350 fans attending home games last season, Sale finished 11th in average Premiership attendance, with only Newcastle Falcons below them) Sale's scheduling decision has also been prompted by both a desire to increase professional Rugby Union's stagnating popularity in England's North West since Sale's move to Barton in 2012 and partly by a desire to lessen the burden on one Brian Kennedy's purse strings.
Whilst it must be considered that season and home openers usually draw disproportionate crowds, so perhaps a future look at Sale's average attendance for the 2014-15 season will be a better barometer of whether Sale made the correct call in changing gamedays, it will be interesting nonetheless to see just how much interest Sale have been able to drum up for the start of the new season. 10,000+ will likely be a goal for the club on Saturday although for the season, Steve Diamond has repeatedly stated that an average attendance of 8,000 a year would make the club break even, making that the logical goal for the year. Should Sale be able to pull in a crowd of that size for Saturday's game, both players and businessmen alike will be greatly encouraged with those types of numbers turning out to cheer the side on against their West Country opponents.
2) Can Sale get off to a fast start?
Much of the rhetoric surrounding Sale Sharks before the start of the new Aviva Premiership season has stressed the need for a quick start to Sale's 2014-15 campaign.
Pivotal Fly-Half Danny Cipriani's contract expires at the end of the season and one would believe that a successful start to the new season will assuredly help lubricate contract negotiations between Sale and the English international. In addition to Cipriani, a strong Autumnal run of form will help prove Sale's 6th place finish last season was not just a flash-in-the-pan and will help attract other players to link up with Sale from next season, including those who could push Sale into contention for the top four. Finally, winning the games available to Sale before they lose top squad members to the autumn and spring international windows will form a strong basis for Sale to push on for European qualification later in the season as well as encourage the hopefully numerous fans to keep returning to watch the team play throughout the year.
However the immediate obstacle standing in Sale's way is the high-spending Bath team whose sights are set firmly on breaking into an airtight top four. Sale managed the double over Bath last season including the heart-in-mouth 12-11 win at The Rec last March but Bath's quick pace and fluid style of play is perhaps better suited for the "summer rugby" that a Saturday afternoon in early September should provide.
3) Who is Sale's starting centre partnership this season?
A common complaint amongst Sale fans over the last three or so seasons has been the (perhaps unfairly) critiqued play of Sale's centre partnerships, in particular that of the Sam Tuitupou - Johnny Leota combination with many fans disappointed with Sale's emphasis on the "Bosh-Bosh" (two strong but slow physical players at both Inside and Outside Centre) strategy amongst the backs. However whilst often maligned, the Sammy T-Leota partnership has been a brutally effective one for Sale and both were a key reason for Sale's success last season.
But with Sale's move to Saturday afternoon games as opposed to dark, damp and dour Northern Friday nights, it is to be expected that Sale will opt this season for a more weather-appropriate style of (physical) "running rugby", one it would not seem that Tuitupou and Leota are best-suited for.
So who will be Sales' preferred centre partnership next year? The return from a series of freak injuries for Will Addison, a very talented Outside Centre prospect who first broke into the Sale team back in 2012 gives Sale a dynamic and pace-y but hard-tackling player who would form a nice contrast with either Tuitupou or Leota. Also to be considered are Mark Jennings, the former England U20 back who enjoyed a run in the first team in a myriad of roles towards the end of last season including both Inside and Outside Centre; Andy Forsyth who moved from Leicester Tigers last season and who started the season with a series of strong performances before losing his place in the first XV to a returning Johnny Leota and even perhaps Academy prospect Sam James who turned out for Sale during pre-season.
I personally envision that it will be Sam Tuitupou and Will Addison who start at 12 and 13 respectively against Bath on Saturday but Steve Diamond's selection will go a long way to indicating who will be first-choice for Sale this year.
Leave a comment below stating any predications you have for Saturday's game or tweet us @SharkTankRugby on Twitter.