Sale Sharks take on Kearnan Myall, James Gaskell, Rob Miller and 12 others on Sunday in their first BT Sport-televised match of the season. Here's Three Things to look out for:
1) How do the old boys get on in their return to the AJ Bell?
If you were to ask me which team in the Premiership or even the world that I dislike the most it would be Wasps. This is partly because of the "Pizzagate" ordeal back in 2009 but also because Wasps have a depressing tendency, especially in recent years, to sign Sale's up-and-coming English talent who we are desperate to keep at the club. First it was Chris Bell, then Kearnan Myall (our standout performer from the 2012/13 season) and last season, in a massive double blow, Wasps were able to swoop in and sign both Rob Miller and James Gaskell, two young, first team regulars with serious aspirations of playing for the England setup in the immediate future. There have also been rumours that Wasps are eying up Danny Cipriani as a potential replacement for the ageing Andy Goode when "Cips'" contract expires at the end of the season but lets not think about that.
Gaskell and Miller were both on the scoresheet for Wasps last weekend in their 35-18 victory over Newcastle Falcons although both have found themselves rotated in and out of the first team at their respective positions of Lock and Fullback. Kearnan Myall has been Joe Launchbury's main partner in Wasps' second row this season but he too has been rotated frequently (usually for James Gaskell). Its quite possible, albeit unlikely, that none of Sale's three biggest exports in recent years even make Wasps' first team for the game on Sunday. Most likely we will see all three involved in some capacity in the Wasps' 23 and all eyes will be closing following each former Shark as they look to get one over on their old club. Whether they can do so is another matter although I feel my heart might shatter should James Gaskell score the winning try in the 79th minute following a break from Rob Miller. We shall see.
2) Will Vilhami Fihaki finally get a starting berth?
Perhaps my strongest condemnation of Sale Sharks so far this season has been regarding the lack of playing time afforded to Tongan No.8 Vilhami Fihaki coupled with the underwhelming play of Sale's starting No.8 Mark Easter. As I have said many times this season already, Easter has not necessarily played poorly in the games he has started, but for a team that lacks a strong ball-carrying forward, Easter's ineffectiveness at the position has been damning for Sale this year.
Vilhami Fihaki in my opinion offers that dynamic play amongst the forwards that Mark Easter simply does not possess. Fihaki breaks tackle, gets out into open space, moves well with ball in hand and has a surprsing combination of both pace and power to supplement his soft hands. I happened to come across this statistic earlier this week concerning Fihaki's performance in last weekend's loss to Saracens and is indicative of what he has to offer the Sale team as opposed to Easter:
Also worth considering is that Wasps have the ability to put out a simply monstrous back row of Ashley Johnson, James Haskell and Nathan Hughes all of whom have received plaudits for their strong starts to the season; it is a back-row Sale cannot match in terms of raw ability and power but surely utilising our strongest back row forward from the starting kick-off is the beginning of a sound strategy to impede the back of Wasps' scrum? I certainly feel Diamond is missing a trick if he opts again to have Mark Easter starting at No.8.
3) Will Marc Jones and Mark Cueto feature?
After a torrid start to the season relating to injuries, Sale fans were offered a glimmer of hope on the Sale Supporters' message board yesterday:
Unfortunately I cannot vouch for the authenticity of this source, I know not who "Penalty Try" is or what his associations with the club are, although it must be said that many on the Supporters' forum are known to have close connections with both the Sale Sharks club and Sale FC (who provide a small number of players for Sale's academy) so this could very well be true.
If so it makes for a massive boost for Sale particularly the news of Marc Jones; much has been made already of Sale's crippled depth at hooker to start the season and Dan Braid aside, "Jonesy" has been Sale's most notable absence in the team. Going up against a team as strong and deep as Wasps means that Sale need all of their key players back for what will be a tough game against two well-balanced sides especially at home and Marc Jones is a welcome return that should hopefully steady a scrum that was perpetually marching backwards last week at the Allianz (if he makes it).
It will be interesting to see if Mark Cueto goes straight back into the first team. After going down to injury in Sale's opening game against Bath, replacement Tom Arscott has excelled starting for Sale on the left wing and his superb run of form would indicate that is it Arscott who should start with Mark Cueto on the bench. That being said I would not be surprised in the slightest to see Cueto featured in the starting XV in some capacity and I worry that Diamond's eagerness to incorporate Cueto's experience and guile from the off would result in a fitter (and at this point more dynamic) player being dropped to the bench in his stead; think Mark Jennings and Andy Forsyth. (Also a quick note; I am a big fan of Andy Forsyth and I think he is being criminally underused in the current Sale setup). Cueto is still an effective and talented player without a doubt, but inserting him straight back into the lineup is at this stage does not benefit the Sale team as much as doing so with Marc Jones at hooker.
Team Prediction: McLean, Brady, Jennings, Leota, Arscott, Cipriani, Cusiter. Harrison, Jones, Cobilas, Mills, Paterson, Lund, Seymour, Fihaki.
Bench: Di Marchi, Mamukashvili, Lewis-Roberts, Beaumont, Easter, Cliff, Ford, Cueto.
Score: 27-24 Sale.