It is with the upmost delight and pleasure that I present to you, cherished readers of The Shark Tank, the very first Three Things preview of the season. Sale prepare to open their season Saturday afternoon with a relatively straightforward trip down to Allianz Park to play Saracens. Apparently they won something last season. Oh well, 5 points please boys.
Starting Sale XV 15. Mike Haley, 14. Tom Arscott, 13. Sam James, 12. Sam Tuitupou, 11. Will Addison, 10. Danny Cipriani, 9. Chris Cusiter, 1. Ross Harrison, 2. Tommy Taylor, 3. Brian Mujati, 4. Josh Beaumont, 5. Bryn Evans, 6. Dan Braid (captain), 7. David Seymour, 8. Mark Easter
Replacements: 16. Neil Briggs, 17. James Flynn, 18. Vadim Cobilas, 19. Jonathan Mills, 20. Magnus Lund, 21. Peter Stringer, 22. Nick Macleod, 23. Mark Jennings
The travesty that is Vilhami Fihaki's omission
The most notable selection made for this, the most crucial of opening weekend fixtures in that ever-important "World Cup Year", was the decision to start Josh Beaumont at lock and have Mark Easter at No.8
I wrote last week about how Beaumont's future could very well lie in the donkey row as opposed to the back row, so Beaumont's selection there is by no means a poor choice. In fact the athletic potential of a second row pairing of Bryn Evans and Josh Beaumont is tantalising and one I cannot wait to see unleashed on Saracens tomorrow, but why oh why is Mark Easter starting at No.8?
I cannot say this clearly enough: Mark is not, and will never be, a Number 8. He's a damn good defensive blindside flanker and there is certainly a place in the Sale squad for him but unlike his brother Nick, Mark has neither the destructive ball-carrying talent or the off-loading ability to be considered a viable option at Number 8 in the Premiership.
But Easter's selection would not be as frustrating if it hadn't been for the Brobdingnagian improvement shown by Vilhami Fihaki in this year's preseason. The Tongan Number 8's hard and powerful running and bone-crunching tackles illustrate a player that is a far cry from the undependable, and ill-discplined figure that came to Manchester two seasons ago. To not have Fihaki start against a team as mobile and powerful as Saracens is infuriating. To not even have him on the bench is criminal.
Big tests for Mike Haley
Two players who will have the spotlight firmly planted upon them tomorrow afternoon in North London will be English duo Mike Haley and Sam James, albeit for very different reasons.
Haley burst into the first team last season to much acclaim and fanfare, and in truth, over the course of the season managed to play Luke McLean, an international fullback with 75 caps to his name, out of a job. But Haley's season, especially the second half, was marked by inconsistencies and frustrating mistakes, usually in regards to passing or handling.
With McLean gone and no replacement being made over the summer, Haley in effect has the starting 15 jersey all to himself, but it is up to the 21 year-old to decisively make the shirt his own both for now and in the future, by building upon the exciting promise he showed last season and eradicating the simple mistakes that plagued the second half of his debut season. It is an evolution that has to begin on Saturday against the stern test of Saracens.
Saracens missing some, but not all their England internationals
Arguably the most disappointing aspect of England's abysmal home World Cup campaign, at least from a Sale point of view, was that many of the elite Premiership talents expected to be still plying their trade at the highest international level for another fortnight are already back and reporting for duty with their Premiership clubs.
Indeed the intimidating prospect of taking down Saracens away from home became that much easier when Sale would ostensibly be playing against a side missing at least eight senior members of the squad away with England (and not counting the further eight internationals representing other foreign nations), which unfortunately is no longer a reality.
The good news is that Saracens do not have Billy Vunipola, Owen Farrell, Brad Barritt, Richard Wigglesworth, Jacque Burger, Chris Wyles, Samuela Vunisa, Marcelo Bosch and so on and so far at their disposal on Saturday.
The bad news is Mako Vunipola, George Kruis, Jamie George and Alex Goode were all named in Saracens' matchday 23. Sale's task is still significantly easier because of the ubiquitous mitigating factor that is the World Cup, but with the insane, salary cap-circumventing depth that Saracens possess, it is a task that still looks positively herculean.
Prediction: Saracens ? - ? Sale Sharks
I have no idea. Sale have a tendency to always run Sarries close at the Allianz and perhaps the Fez Head's long list of World Cup omissions will just about give Sale an edge, but its impossible to say with a brand-new Sale team in a brand-new season that still needs to be properly evaluated. Sayyyulll.
Lewis Hughes plans on writing at least 21 more Three Things features this season and is hoping to reach 300 followers on Twitter before tomorrow's game. Please follow @SharkTankRugby on Twitter for more updates, opinions and analysis of all things Sale Sharks