It is easy for Sale Sharks fans to cast an envious eye over their more successful rivals for a number of reasons. In recent years Northampton Saints and Wasps have had a frustrating ability to lure Sale's most promising players away from the AJ Bell stadium, Saracens and Bath - backed by huge amounts of capital - are able to bring in world-class talents from around the globe to bolster their squads for runs at the Premiership title and the likes of Leicester Tigers (because of their illustrious history) and Harlequins (for their revival from Championship team to Premiership title winners backed by a near-wholly English squad) gobble up media attention, television appearances and column inches.
Additionally in my years following Sale I have seen many lament the success Sale's more affluent and successful rivals have in finding rugby's equivalent of 'diamonds in the rough' - unorthodox rugby players from around the world or non-traditional Union backgrounds and then developing them into world-beaters. Kyle Eastmond and Sam Burgess are two rugby league converts Bath possess who are now playing rugby for England's national union team. Saracens have forged links with a multitude of clubs worldwide including Timisoara in Romania, Seattle in the USA and Sao Paulo in Brazil whilst Northampton have the undisputed best forward in the Premiership and maybe even the Northern Hemisphere in Samu Manoa - a backrower from the rugby 'hotbed' that is Concord, California.
But while it is fair for Sale to be envious of their fellow clubs for all the reasons written in the first paragraph, we must remember that Sale have arguably made the finest acquisition of a rugby player from a less-heralded rugby region in recent years. That player is Vadim Cobilas from Moldova. And he might just be the most underrated player in the Premiership.
As of February 1st 2015, Moldova are 28th in World Rugby's international rankings which puts them behind the likes of rugby powerhouses Hong Kong and Belgium. They will not compete in this year's Rugby World Cup and their lack of previous RWC experience means they are not classified within World Rugby's tiered system. For all intents and purposes, Moldova - the former Soviet state that ranks as Europe's poorest country with a population of less than 3,000,000 - are less than minnows of World or European rugby. Indeed they're barely a blip on the rugby radar.
Vadim Cobilas became the very first Moldovan rugby player to ever play professionally outside of the Russian Professional League upon signing for Sale Sharks in 2011. So how have Sale managed to turn a tiny rugby nation's first western export into one of, if not the, best tighthead props in the Aviva Premiership in the four years since his arrival?
It all begins with Sale coach Steve Diamond. After the disaster that were the reigns of Kingsley Jones and Mike Brewer consecutively as Director of Rugby, many Sale fans looked on with trepidation as Diamond announced the signings of a bevy of unknown players including the aforementioned Cobilas and Russian second-rower Andrei Ostrikov as part of the 'Diamond Revolution' to rebuild a Sale squad that had finished 10th the previous season.
Yet four years on, Cobilas' rapid adjustment and success within England's top domestic league has silenced the Sale DOR's critics and showcased the extensive knowledge Diamond possesses of Eastern European rugby gained during his previous tenure as the head coach of the Russian national team.
It was never a certainty that Cobilas would ever feature for Sale as most pickups from such untraditional regions very rarely receive the opportunity to turn out for a Premiership first team. So the fact that Cobilas has gone to become one of the first names on the Sale teamsheet every week is simply an astonishing achievement.
I do not believe it is overestimating Cobilas' importance to say that he, along with Dan Braid and Danny Cipriani, rank as the most crucial players in the Sale Sharks squad for every game week-in, week-out.
This is for a number of reasons. At 5ft 11 and 18st 8lbs, Cobilas is a force both in the scrum and around the park. A devastatingly efficient scrummager, Cobilas has been one of the least penalised props across the entire Premiership both this season and last despite regularly playing well above the league average minutes for a tighthead. In addition, Cobilas is an opportunistic and facilitating ball-carrier, often carrying more than five times a game with a surprisingly fluid off-load and passing game.
But it is Cobilas' role within the Sale squad that elevates him to critical importance. Last season's departure of fellow prop Henry Thomas to Bath Rugby left a hole, nay a chasm, at the tighthead position behind Cobilas. It was a void that Diamond attempted to fill with the signing of loosehead Prop and Italian international Alberto de Marchi, a move that would in theory allow the incumbent starter at loosehead, Eifon Lewis-Roberts, to cover tighthead as a backup to Cobilas.
The move has been a disaster. Lewis-Roberts, who in the past had been equally adapt at both positions is no long able to play tighthead at a Premiership-standard level and consequently has featured solely as a loosehead beyond the first few weeks of the season. Perhaps more importantly however is that de Marchi, who it is believed Diamond envisioned as also being able to cover tighthead, has struggled to compete at the Premiership level at his natural position of loosehead, never mind on the other side of the scrum.
With the modern game now mandating that top teams require at least three players on each side of the scrum because of the wear and tear all props undergo, Vadim Cobilas has undergone the Herculean task of single-handedly holding down the position for Sale over the last five months. The failure of the de Marchi signing has forced Diamond to get creative and encourage England Saxon Ross Harrison to convert from loosehead to tighthead to lighten the load on Cobilas, but such a conversion takes time and so far the results have been mixed - Harrison is probably still not ready to start a game at tighthead in the Premiership.
Simply put, Cobilas is in the midst of an unheard of feat. He is playing one of the most important positions in rugby - in which there is currently a noticeable lack of world-class talent - for a team in the thick of contention for a top-six place whilst having no recognisable backup when conventional rugby logic suggests at least two are necessary for a successful domestic team.
Cobilas has averaged a ridiculous 61 minutes per Premiership game this season for Sale including three entire-80 minute performances. These numbers are unprecedented in the age of Professional rugby union and what is even more remarkable is the high level to which Cobilas continues to play despite having already played 1162 minutes across all competitions this year.
But despite this, Cobilas is a name few from outside the North-West have heard of. He does not garner the media attention he deserves because of the relative obscurity of his citizenship (Moldovan) in the rugby-playing world. I have little doubt that his achievements would be more well-known had he been English or even English-qualified considering the shallowness of England's prospects at the tighthead position from grassroots to the national team.
Earlier this year Sale confirmed they had signed Vadim's younger brother Max on a trial basis until the end of the season. With Vadim's success, its not difficult to see why. If Max, a loosehead, is able to replicate the commitment and ability his brother has shown since moving to Sale in 2011, the Sharks may once again have found a true 'diamond in the rough'.
Vadim, now a firmly established cult figure amongst the Sale fans, is signed on until the end of the 2015-16 season at which point he will be 33 years old. Considering the late start to his professional rugby career (I believe he originally trained as a weightlifter) it is possible Vadim could stay at Sale well past 2016 although that is dependant on a variety of ulterior factors.
Overall Cobilas has been arguably the best signing Steve Diamond has made since returning to Sale Sharks and the huge impact he has made rivals that of other unorthodox imports such as Samu Manoa. The thanklessness of his role in the team however, combined with his nationality has meant that Cobilas is often overlooked when talking about the best forwards in the Premiership. Upon review it is clear that there are few players in the country less-heralded than Vadim Cobilas despite his standout performances. Hopefully the promulgation of this piece will begin to see Vadim finally get the recognition few outside the North-West give him.