Sale Sharks return to Aviva Premiership action tomorrow with London Irish the first of a trio of key games in consecutive weeks that could either push Sale back into contention for a top-six place or doom them to another 'relegation scrap'. Here's three things to keep an eye on:
Will Sale play another 'game of two halves'?
I really don't want to talk about last weekend's debacle at Welford Road any more than I have to for fear of being put on suicide watch so I will keep this brief; Sale completely capitulated in the second half of last weekend's LV game against Tigers, shipping 26 unanswered points en route to a morale-crushing 29-13 loss.
This week, with a far more experienced backline, a stronger bench, Vadim Cobilas back in the match day 23 and Dan Cole not available to come off the bench for London Irish, Sale have re-evaluated their gameplay and will look to put their second-half woes behind them, head coach Diamond has repeatedly assured us. After a frankly pathetic performance last week, the only way really is up for Sale, or at least one would hope so since this is by all means a must win game for Sale considering their home advantage and relative strength of their opponents. The key will be if Sale are able to consolidate and more importantly, build on and add to any lead they can amass. It doesn't have to be pretty but this cannot be another game Sale let slip through their fingers.
The return of Mark Jennings
One of the few bright spots so far this season for Sale has been the play of centre Mark Jennings who has clearly made the biggest leap in ability and confidence of all of Sale's young players coming though the academy system. However the return from injury of Sam Tuitupou, coupled with a nagging injury has kept Jennings out of action since the October 11th game against Northampton Saints which, coincidentally he scored a try in.
With Johnny Leota on international duty with Samoa over the next two weeks, Diamond has placed his confidence in Jennings, selecting him at Outside Centre for tomorrow's game.
Jennings has displayed flashes of both power and attacking flair so far this season predominately playing at 12 which, in this writer's opinion, is a position stifled under the system employed by Diamond and Sale, as the inside centre is usually relegated to being either a dummy runner, a link to moving the ball out wide or receiver on the 'pop-pass' set play. With Tuitupou back from injury (who does all three of those things exceptionally well), this should allow Jennings more time and creativity with the ball as an outside centre and it will be interesting to see which position Jennings is better suited for having spent time at both this year.
Will Halani Aulika score another wonder try?
As a die-hard Sale fan, there are few players on opposition teams that I sincerely enjoy watching play. However Irish tighthead Halani Aulika is one of the exceptions, even if he does make Sale backs and forwards alike look silly with his wonderful ball-carrying ability (this was from the 33-33 draw two seasons ago):
Prediction: Sale Sharks 30 - 21 London Irish
Continuing the trend of high-scoring games we as Sale fans have enjoyed this season, I expect this to be another shootout (although if I'm honest I'm pining for the days last season when we beat Irish 15-3). Irish themselves have scored a good amount of points this season with a talented backline including former Shark Fergus Mulchrone, Andrew Fenby and Alex Lewington, although their equally as leaky defence should mean Cipriani and co. will be able to run up the score.