After a seemingly infinite break (two weeks) from domestic rugby, Sale Sharks return to Premiership action with the visit of Gloucester rugby to the AJ Bell Stadium on Sunday. With Gloucester only six points and two places below Sale in the current Premiership standings, Sale know a win is absolutely vital if they hope to remain in the hunt for a second consecutive top-six finish. Here's three things to watch out for in Sunday's game:
Harrison starts at LH
Arguably the biggest surprise of Diamond's team selection for Sunday's game is that Ross Harrison starts at Loosehead Prop ahead of current incumbent Eifon Lewis-Roberts. However this is a move I am definitely in favour of. Despite being asked this season to gradually convert to Tighthead Prop to cover the team's weakness in depth at that position, Harrison has still impressed me more this year playing as a Loosehead (en route to him earning an England Saxons call up in January), and when Lewis-Roberts status' as the most penalised Loosehead in the Premiership and his slowing mobility and effectiveness are considered, this seems a great opportunity to give Harrison vital gametime with a view to have him take over as a long-term starter (so long as Sale can bring in a backup tighthead for next season). Harrison's youthful motor will also be crucial in outplaying his opposing number, John Afoa, Gloucester's tighthead who he will match up against in the scrum.
Ostrikov in for Mills
Another break in the formula Diamond has consistently used in picking his Sale team's this season, Andrei Ostrikov makes a surprise return to first team action bumping Jonathan Mills down to the bench. Often used in Diamond's tenure as extra grunt when facing top-four sides with scarily strong packs, Ostrikov has featured relatively little this season for Sale even with Michael Paterson being ruled out for four months earlier late last year with injury. Call me a cynic, but could Ostrikov's inclusion be a negotiating tactic on Dimes' part with the Russian second rower's contract set to expire at the end of this season and a number of French clubs, I'm told, interested in his services, to show that Ostrikov still has a part to play in Sale's first team setup. Regardless of my conspiracy theories, Ostrikov should provide additional power in a Sale scrum that will look to dominate the set-piece, an area Gloucester have struggled mightily with in recent seasons.
No TJ Ioane or Will Addison
Two of the more conspicuous absences from the Sale 23 for Sunday's game come in the form of flanker-cum-No.8 TJ Ioane and Will Addison. Ioane's exclusion and Jonathan Mills and Magnus Lund's inclusions are likely a tactical choice that signals Sale's gameplan on Sunday will to slow the game's pace down with emphasis on breakdown competition and a methodical and team-orientated forwards play as opposed to the lightning pace and devil-may-care attitude Ioane displays with his ball-carrying. Addison's absence is more concerning however as his form this season has been arguably the strongest of any of the Sale backline which suggests his ommission is down to him still suffering the effects of the knee injury he suffered late in the Saracens game last month despite the three week 'rest'. Considering Addison's previously nightmarish injury history, once again Sale fans are forced to wonder if Addison will play any part in the remainder of the Sharks' season.
Prediction: Sale Sharks 22 - 11 Gloucester Rugby
With wins in six of their eight home Premiership games this season including back-to-back victories over both of last year's Premiership finalists Northampton and Saracens, Sale have once again turned the AJ Bell into something of a fortress this season. Sale's impressive home form combined with Gloucester's mediocre results on their own travels (three wins out of eight) and struggles at the AJ Bell (they're yet to win away at Sale since before the Sharks moved grounds) gives a firm advantage to the home side. Both teams have also been in exhilarating attacking form this season which suggests Sunday's game should feature a number of tries, although the dreary weather forecast suggests it won't be akin to the shooutout the teams engaged in during the corresponding fixture at Kingsholm earlier this season. A strong looking Sale team with some interesting depth across the twenty-three man matchday squad, rested and reinvigorated by the two week break should have enough, even without Will Addison, to record a comfortable victory over a yo-yoing Gloucester side still struggling to hit top gear, especially as Gloucester are missing influential figures in their backline such as Greig Laidlaw and Henry Trinder.
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