Sale Sharks will look to salvage their fledging hopes of European qualification and put further distance between themselves and a Harlequins team directly below them in the table when the two sides meet at the AJ Bell on Saturday afternoon. With tomorrow's encounter serving as Sale's penultimate home game of the season, here's three things to watch out for:
Tom Brady Returns
Making his first Premiership start in a Sale shirt since November's reverse fixture against Harlequins, Tom Brady returns to the Sharks starting lineup on Sale's right wing in place of Tom Arscott who drops to the bench. Whilst a period of up-and-down form initially led to Brady being dropped from the first team, chances for redemption have been hard to come by for the 24 year-old despite injuries to fellow wingers Mark Cueto and Will Addison at different points. Brady offers a more conservative and positionally responsible game compared to Arscott's lightning brand of attack and defence and it is perhaps this different approach Diamond is seeking to utilise against Brady's opposite number tomorrow afternoon, Charlie Walker, who has been in scintillating form this year. Yet if Brady's inclusion and Arscott's exclusion are being driven by a tactical approach, I feel perhaps the nostalgia of this being Mark Cueto's penultimate home appearance has clouded Diamond's judgement in dropping Tom Arscott instead of Cueto to make room for Brady, as Arscott is by far now the superior player in most, if not all, areas of the game of rugby. However a more likely explanation is that it's a minor injury related issue that's keeping Arscott off the pitch for the start of play and considering Arscott's form this season (he's been Sale's best attacking threat all year long by a long margin) perhaps keeping him fresh for the tired legs later in the game is not a bad strategy.
T.J. Ioane Also Returns
A mid-season signing that is yet to feature for the Sale first team beyond sporadically, T.J. Ioane, rescued from the purgatory of Sale Sharks' U23 games, will make his first Premieship start for the club at No.8 on Saturday. A signing made with an eye to next season as well, Ioane's contributions to the team during the final trio of Premiership games could have a large impact on the direction Sale's strategy takes into next season. So far Sale fans have only been treated to glimpses of Ioane's devil-may-care and aggressive style of ball-carrying and the prospect of all of he, Josh Beaumont and Magnus Lund all starting together giving a Sale a trifecta of ball-carrying forwards is an exciting prospect for a usually toothless pack (Beaumont aside).
Marler vs. Cobilas
The key matchup that could dictate which side gains the ascendancy at the scrum Saturday afternoon sees England and Harlequins first choice Loosehead Joe Marler take on Sale and Moldova's first choice (by default) Tighthead, Vadim Cobilas. The toll being Sale's sole first team Tighthead has began to show on cult favourite Cobilas whose form has noticeably dipped in recent games coinciding with an overall depowering of the Sale pack. However the structure of the final two months of Premiership rounds has increasingly allowed Sale longer breaks between games as the European competitions progress through their knockout rounds and one hopes the two weeks rest since Sale were sucker-punched by London Irish at the Madjeski will have allowed Vadim the time to recuperate and get back to top form. He will need to be at his best to match up against Joe Marler, the clear consensus starting Loosehead for England going into the World Cup whose temperament and discipline has also improved dramatically since being handed the Harlequins' captaincy. Whoever wins the battle at the scrum could swing the game in either team's favour.
Prediction: Sale Sharks 20 - 14 Harlequins
Having been blind-sided by an upstart London Irish team two weeks ago, Sale will be desperate to make amends against Quins and keep their top-six dream alive. With the weather taking a turn to the dreary this one probably won't be an eighty point thriller that both sides have shown their capable of competing in this season. Sale at home are a tough nut to crack and having beaten Quins at The Stoop already this year Sale should have the edge as long as they can slow the game's tempo down and stifle Harlequins's free-flowing brand of attack. Sale managed a similar task against Gloucester last month and I'm predicting the same outcome here albeit closer.
Bonus Prediction: A forward scores a try following their own break in the line.
Sale have proper ball-carrying forwards now, it's time to believe.