I make it that we are now 14 weeks into the current 2014/15 season which is ample time to reflect on Sale Sharks' last few months and the performances to go with it. Here I've decided to review the tape from Sale's first nine Premiership games, three European Champions rounds, and two LV Cups matches and enshrine who I believe has (and hasn't) impressed this season in a handy list form.
*Note* This article is solely for player's playing above or below the expectations set of them prior to the beginning of the season. For instance, Dan Braid, whilst impressive in all his performances this season, is playing at the high level that Sale fans have come to expect of him so therefore will not be found on the 'Impressing' list. However lets get the bad out of the way first:
Alberto Di Marchi - Oh dear. The Italian international squad's first-choice Loosehead was supposed to shore up Sale's depleted prop depth, log big minutes at the scrum and allow the ageing and progressively ineffective Eifon Lewis-Roberts to be used more sparingly. Instead Di Marchi appears to have forgotten how to scrum since moving to Manchester; being frequently penalised and looking over-matched against Premiership-quality opposition which has forced ELR to play upwards of 70 minutes a game. And now a wrist injury looks set to keep him out on the sidelines for the next six weeks. In Di Marchi's defence, he's an absolute wrecking ball in the loose, its just a shame he can't replicate that form when it comes time to scrum down.
Luke McLean - What is it with Sale and Italians? Di Marchi's Italian teammate, Luke McLean could very well be the biggest bust of a signing made in the Diamond-Age (I'm copyrighting that) of Sale Sharks. An expensive acquisition due to his well-renowned performances for Italy on the international stage, McLean has been overly passive in defence, pathetic challenging for the high ball and offered practically nothing with ball-in-hand although I admire his enthusiasm in acting as a 'faux-10' and first receiver when Cipriani has been taken out on a previous play. The fact that academy graduate Mike Haley has looked so good in his limited appearances by comparison has only compounded how much of a bust McLean has been so far for Sale. The last two weeks playing at 14 for Sale haven't been particularly encouraging either..
Nathan Hines - It may seem a little unfair to include Nathan Hines on the 'disappointing' section of this article but rest assured it is not for his play on the rugby pitch this year; it has been the lack of it. Hines looked a hand-in-glove fit next to Michael Paterson in Sale's second row in Sale's opening day defeat to Bath and first eight minutes the following week against Gloucester, especially as a disruptive force in the lineout, before tearing the tendons in his arm. The 37 year-old's return takes added importance now with the news Michael Paterson is set for four months out with a knee injury and he is likely to return in two weeks against Exeter. However its been a disappointing start to the season for everyone involved and I'm certain Nathan will be raring to come back as soon as possible.
Mark Cueto - An illustrious member of Sale Sharks' history, Mark Cueto has been as faithful a servant to his club as anyone since the game of Union turned professional in the 1990s. However now aged 35, Mark Cueto is simply not the same player he once was and that has never been more evident than this season. A continuing battle with injuries has left Cueto only able to participate in three games for Sale this year and in all three, Cueto's defensive play and tackling has been lacking, his kicking inconsistent and poor and it is obvious that his once-famed speed has nearly completely evaporated. At this stage, giving Cueto game-time over other wingers such as Tom Brady is doing the team a disservice.
Mike Haley - Simply put, a special player. Haley has played incredibly at fullback for Sale since replacing Luke McLean in the starting lineup for the Munster game in early October and the former Preston Grasshopper has not looked back, starting every single game since. What's not to like with Haley? A player I genuinely believe is the most promising I have ever seen pull on a Sale shirt for years; Haley is blessed with extraordinary ability and composure under the highball, mesmerising footwork, a great turn of pace and a confident demanaor that allows him to take on (and frequently) beat his man when in possession. He has been Sale's top metre maker in two of his three Premiership games and a few kicking inaccuracies aside, has looked comfortably at home against top opposition both domestically and continentally. A real pleasure to watch and someone Sale will have high hopes for long-term; Haley's upward trajectory could see him playing for England one day, and that is no exaggeration.
Mark Jennings - Able to play both Inside and Outside Centre, Jennings has impressed mightily at both positions this season for Sale, and it is only the presence of the Bash Brothers - Sam Tuitupou and Johnny Leota that are preventing Jennings from being a starter week-in, week-out. Even in the limited starts and bench cameos he has been given, Jennings looks to have made the biggest leap in ability of any of Sale's returning players in 2014. Noticeably bigger and bulkier, Jennings has really shown an increased ability in defence; tackling, breakdown work and the like but more importantly the former WJC winner has displayed an innate ability to make hard yards in contact, proving incredibly difficult to bring down without more than one defender. His running lines have massively improved also and he is often the first player in support of a break from a fellow Shark; look at Johnny Leota's try against Falcons for evidence of Jennings' developing vision and positioning. Unlucky not to be starting every week, Jennings is turning into the player many envisioned watching him at the 2012 and 2013 WJC.
Josh Beaumont - Rounding out a trio of young, English players, Josh Beaumont, returning from a year long knee injury, has made the Sale No.8 shirt his own with a series of strong performances this season. Whilst not necessarily outperforming former starter Mark Easter in terms of breaking the defensive line or getting over the gain line, Beaumont's presence at the back of the scrum as a 6ft 7, 17st back-rower has done a significant amount to stabilise a former-wobbling pack whilst his short-yard game has provided an excellent platform for the grounded style of play Sale empty under Steve Diamond. A noticeable improvement in his handling and ball-carrying from last season plus his sheer physical presence is also keeping the opposition honest in ways in which Mark Easter cannot match. Long-term, I still see Beaumont as a Lock but for the immediate future he is fitting in perfectly as Sale No.8.
Tom Arscott - An injury sustained against Harlequins has kept Arscott on the sidelines for the last few weeks and his form has admittedly dipped off after an incredibly hot-start, but still, it would be unfair to say Arscott has not impressed for Sale this season. An opening-day injury to Mark Cueto afforded Arscott the opportunity to start on Sale's left wing and Arscott has comprehensively outplayed his competition scoring five tries in seven-and-a-bit games this season, showcasing electrifying pace and energy along with dogged determination in all aspects of the game. Arscott looks much more at home on the wing as opposed to fullback where he was trialled at the end of last season and one would expect him to re-claim his place on the wing when he returns from injury in the next few weeks.