Continuing SharkTankRugby's pre-season features that take a look at the upcoming 2015/16 season for Sale Sharks, today we tackle the question: who makes up the best possible starting lineup for Sale this season?
'Best' is obviously subjective and different players will be asked to fulfil different roles over the course of a rugby season depending on opposition, fitness levels and gameplan amongst others, so for this exercise the criteria is simple; who are the best twenty-three players currently in the Sale squad that the Sharks could roll out on any given week?
Also to tie-in the news of the day, don't expect to see Sale's latest signing Nev Edwards - who was announced to have signed a one-year deal with the club Wednesday morning - feature in this list. To give a succinct opinion on the matter; I believe Edwards certainly offers a number of exciting skills unique to only himself within the Sale squad, however I don't believe a 27 year-old who only turned pro this summer and has extremely limited experience of playing the full, unabridged union game, is the calibre of player Sale needed to bolster their wing and back-three ranks in the face of Mark Cueto's and Luke McLean's departures. I wrote in detail about this the other day (so please do take a look at it), but in short, Edwards only adds to the middling pack of untested players that lie far below the likes of Tom Arscott, Will Addison and possibly Tom Brady on the Sale depth chart which simply isn't good enough for a team with the ambitions Sale have.
Anyway, onto the team:
Loosehead Prop - Ross Harrison
Another player I wrote in detail about a few weeks ago (so forgive me for the short entry), for me Ross Harrison has to be Sale's starting Loosehead this year. He has the experience (just short of 100 apperances for Sale), the fitness levels (has considerably slimmed down over summer) and the pure ability (strongest player ever to play for Sale) to far out-shine current incumbent Eifon Lewis-Roberts, a player clearly on the down-swing of his career. Harrison has all the tools to be a full England international as early as this time next year, why keep him on the bench any longer?
Hooker - Tommy Taylor
A fellow potential England international and possible choice to become Sale's next captain, Taylor is the biggest reason why many Sale fans were not too upset when Marc Jones opted to move back closer to home with Bristol this summer. In short, Jones' departure allows Taylor a clear run with the staring hooker jersey. The 23 year-old is quick, strong, tactically aware and a great lineout-thrower with immense potential still to be reached, Taylor is far and away the best hooker Sale currently have on their books, and should, with even greater exposure to the first team, eventually become a better player than his predecessor Marc Jones was for Sale.
Tighthead Prop - Vadim Cobilas
Perhaps the first controversial decision on this list, despite Brian Mujati's arrival as the big summer signing for Sale, I still have to pay homage to arguably the most consistent player Sale have had in the last four seasons. Mujati has arrived with a lot of pedigree, all of it justified, and probably is in all truth the superior player. However Sale have struggled with their big-name arrivals bedding into the club in recent years and until Mujati has got a somewhat substantial body of work under him, I do not feel confident in saying that Mujati is decisively better than the ever-present Vadim Cobilas, who, as I've said before, is someone I believe to be one of the most underrated players in the entire league.
Locks - Jonathan Mills and Bryn Evans
Things get even murkier once Sale's second row comes into question. With only three out-and-out locks in the squad once George Nott's academy status and the uncertainty around Josh Beaumont's optimum position are factored in, Sale really do not have a plethora of options to choose from. With Bryn Evans a newcomer to the side as well with the Kiwi's level and ability of contribution this season still undetermined, making a definite choice as to who Sale's best locks are is tough.
Jonathan Mills is definitely a name to be pencilled in however. Although on the surface his fitness levels may be questionable, Mills is a skilled and experienced operator who serves as a key, and often unheralded cog, in the Sharks' forwards-heavy gameplan; repeatedly taking the ball into contact for hard yards, making tackles, clearing out rucks and being a disrupting menace at either Sale's, or the opposition's, rolling mauls.
Who partners him however is tougher to decide, however I am leaning slightly more towards Evans. Ostrikov is certainly a skilled and extremely fun to watch player, however his discipline, or lack thereof, seems perpetually to hold him back from attaining a consistent starting place. And with Diamond seemingly comfortable enough to make Evans his only addition to the 'donkey row' despite Sale's lack of depth at the position, it speaks volumes to the player Diamond believes he's snagged. I'll admit I was impressed by Evans' physicality and strength when I saw him play live a few weeks back and Diamond does have a particular proficiency at snagging relatively low-key forwards and turning them into indispensable team members, see Michael Paterson.
Blindside Flanker - Dan Braid
This is an easy one. At 34 Braid's best days are clearly behind him, but he's still a hugely influential player for Sale even if physically he cannot bear the brunt off too many more 80 minute games. Regardless of if he plays 50 or 70 minutes, Braid is a massive personality in the Sale dressing room and by far their most important leader on the pitch and simply has to start every game if possible.
Openside Flanker - Magnus Lund
Although I actually believe David Seymour is (very marginally) a better overall player than Lund, Sale's gameplan works so much more fluently with Seymour coming off the bench as a fresh and dangerous, turnover and counter-attacking option akin to what Dan Braid does for the first 50 minutes of a game. Therefore because of the differences between Lund - 6ft 3' and a stronger ball-carrier and lineout option - and Braid, Lund gets the starting 7 shirt for Sale to balance out Sale's commendably strong backrow and allow Diamond the luxury of utilising David Seymour as something of a 'super-sub'.
Number 8 - Josh Beaumont
I don't even need to explain this one.
Scrum-half - Chris Cusiter
Wrongly - at least in my eyes - criticised by some during his first season in Manchester, Cusiter ticks all the boxes of a starting Premiership scrum-half. The now-ex Scottish international is experienced, quick around the breakdown (an area the arrival of Paul Deacon has already made a noticeable impact on), a crisp passer, versatile enough to orchestrate a differing tempo mid-game and has already built an impressive rapport with Danny Cipriani. Although not as incisive as say Danny Care or Joe Simpson, Cusiter is still a great player; Peter Stringer won't be stealing starts away from him in 2015-16.
Fly-half - Danny Cipriani
It wasn't going to be Joe Ford or Nick MacLeod now was it?
Left Wing - Tom Arscott
Definitely a more effective and dangerous player on the wing as opposed to at fullback, Arscott has come on magnificently in his two years at Sale since joining from London Welsh and is now one of the most dangerous attacking players in the entire Sharks side. Arscott's ability to cover fullback is a plus one feels Steve Diamond will be making plenty of use out of this season, but it's predominately Arscott's ability to evade tackles, counter-attack and slice holes in opposing defences that make him first choice for Sale's left-wing.
Inside Centre - Sam Tuitupou
One of Sale's key leaders both on and off the field, 'Hacksaw Sam', even at 33, is still the instrumental figure in Sale's midfield. Deceptively quick and evasive for a player of his physique , the ability to literally run over people and pass out of the dummy run also helps makes Tuitupou a key facilitator in Sale's attacking gameplan. Sammy T also the leader of the Sharks' defensive line and sets the tempo for Sale's punishing defence with the huge bone-rattling tackles that have made him into a cult hero. Unmoveable from Sale's lineup.
Outside Centre - Johnny Leota
The 'bosh brothers' tandem of Tuitupou and Leota is often-maligned by Sale fans, myself included, however Sharks supporters often do forget the relative riches Sale enjoy in their midfield. Although I am of the opinion that Leota is better served as an Inside Centre, Leota is still an above-average 13 and his suspiciously similar style of play to Tuitupou makes him the second half one of the most feared duos in the entire Premiership to match up against.
Right Winger - Will Addison
Definitely a more effective and dangerous player on the wing than at centre (apparently his preferred position) Addison, known for his glass-like status, has proved himself a more durable player playing as a winger. And durability is the key attribute Sale require from Addison at this stage in his career. The Cumbrian-born flyer has proven himself to be an exciting talent as a ball-carrier, runner, tackler and in-play kicker but it is his health issues over the last three years that has kept Addison from reaching his extraordinary high potential. Addison is a perfectly adept talent for a top-six team at either 13 or 14, but if 14 keeps him off the treatment table for longer, wing is where he should stay.
Fullback - Mike Haley
Although the 'breakout' season many have lauded was plagued by inconsistencies in form, Haley remains one of the brightest talents Sale currently possess. With great physical attributes and on-field awareness Haley has the basis of a skillset to be another legitimate international player for Sale in the near-future. More game-time is needed however for Haley to really blossom into the player his play last season hinted he was capable of becoming, and there should be no debate as to who to give the starting 15 shirt to this season after Haley brutally usurped the ineffective Luke McLean last year. Haley is the future of Sale's back-three.
16 - Eifon Lewis-Roberts
17 - Cameron Neild
18 - Brian Mujati (for now)
19 - David Seymour
20 - TJ Ioane (Beaumont or Lund are both capable of covering second row if needed)
21 - Peter Stringer
22 - Joe Ford (as long as his goal-kicking has been able to rebound after some dire attempts at the sticks last season)
23 - Mark Jennings