Last Monday night, the Sale Sharks Supporters Club, as part of their annual End of Season Awards Celebration, voted Danny Cipriani as Sale's 'Player of the Season' for 2014/15.
Cipriani, for sure, has had an impressive season for Sale in his third year in Manchester. No longer the defensive sieve he was in his inaugural season in the North-West, Cipriani has developed his approach to become one of the best tacklers and defensively astute members of the Sale squad to augment the astonishing creative attacking skills that Cipriani has built his career on. Game-changing pieces of skill such as the chip-and-chase leading to the winning try at Kingston Park against Newcastle or the off-load to Sam Tuitupou to secure victory over Saracens back in February are just two, of many, examples of the pivotal role Cipriani has played in all of the positive aspects of Sale's 2014-15 season.
However to decree Sale's sole English international as the Sharks' 'Player of the Season', in my opinion, is the wrong decision. In this writer's opinion that honour should go to Tom Arscott.
Before I get lambasted for being needlessly controversial with my selection of Arscott over Cipriani and other logical nominees from Sale's first team, Dan Braid and Josh Beaumont who have both been in fine form this season, I will explain my decision.
Without getting into the fiercely-contested debate regarding Sale Sharks's 'real' position within the modern day Premiership, Sale, are objectively, a team with genuine top-six aspirations even if they will probably fail to meet them this season.
However for a team ostensibly competing for automatic European qualification places year-in year-out, Sale are a team objectively lacking the star quality of their rival Premiership competitors.
Sale are a team that thrives off a 'team' ethos - a collection of players that with a strictly implemented gameplan combine to form a sum greater than their individual parts. It is this that has allowed Sale to finish in the Premiership top-six twice in the last three seasons and come close to a similar accomplishment this year. But even with the team-orientated nature of professional Rugby Union, stars with the ability to change a game in a perilous position are sorely needed.
Sale already have one of the best in the rugby world in that game-changing category in Danny Cipriani. But as teams such as Northampton, Bath and Wasps whose success this season with their multitude of international players have shown this season, one player cannot always do it alone - the top squads have multiple game-winning players.
And whilst Cipriani has been undoubtedly impressive this season with his domestic form earning him a well-deserved recall to the England international team, Cipriani has been guilty, especially against the elite Premiership teams this season, of putting in anonymous performances from the fly-half position where he has struggled to engage his fellow backs in attack, often by trying overly ambitious passes and cross-field kicks that needlessly gives possession away. Cipriani's decision-making has also come into question at times this season, sometimes making curious choices with penalties to exploit, poorly missing positional kicks (Quins last weekend comes to mind) and attempting to force play that leads to mistakes (the debacle of the Irish try from the missed penalty is the most striking example of this).
With the cash-strapped nature of the Sale Sharks organisation however, Sale are not in the financial position to attract the game-changing calibre of player upon the open market that the Premiership top four or five possess in plurality. Instead Sale must look and find these types of players in a more unorthodox fashion.
Enter Tom Arscott; the 27 year-old winger in his second season with Sale who joined from a relegated London Welsh in 2013.
Even with the aforementioned Cipriani considered, Tom Arscott has been, unquestionably, Sale's most dangerous attacking player this season. Playing with a unrivalled sense of freedom following a positional switch from fullback to wing with the arrival of Luke McLean (and subsequent emergence of Mike Haley), Arscott has been simply electric with ball-in-hand this season in his new role within the Sale system. Dangerously quick (he's the quickest member of the Sale first team squad by far), Arscott has demonstrated a greatly improved sense of attacking vision that has allowed him to identify and exploits gaps within opposition defences to the tune of 15(!) tries in 23 appearances for Sale Sharks this season; the best try-to-appearance ratio since Mark Cueto scored 18 in 25 appearances during the 2004-05 season. A perfect example of Arscott's liberating style of attacking play this season can be found here (skip to 00:50) in a match from early 2015 away to Munster.
Indicative of the ability he has shown this year, in this instance Arscott receives the ball in space, spots the gap in the Munster defence, hits the gap whilst selling the dummy pass and then uses an additional burst of pace to round the Munster fullback to score without receiving a tackle.
For a team that so desperately lacks players who can create offensive individually outside of Danny Cipriani in the number 10 role, Arscott's emergence has been a God-send. Sale do not lack for defensively aware players who can win a turnover in the mold of a Dan Braid, indeed Sale regularly employ three of them in their matchday squads with David Seymour and Magnus Lund in addition to Braid. And whilst Josh Beaumont has been a ball-carrying breath of fresh air amongst Sale's forwards, Beaumont's impact as a game-changer or defence exploiter pales in comparison to that of Arscott.
One need look only as far back as last Saturday to see the unique impact Arscott has on Sale's performance. Trailing 3-25 on 49 minutes after a miserable first half performance that saw Sale fail to make a single clean break, Arscott, with his first carry of the game took a beautifully weighted kick from Cipriani in the Quins' 22, completely sold the Harlequins fullback on a dummy pass then raced away from a covering defender to score.
Arscott's second carry of the game? Arscott fielded the restart, broke a first tackle, span away from a second then raced out into the open field. Admittedly Sale were unable to score from the passage of play, but Arscott's ability to break the play out into the open field was evident immediately; Arscott would score his second try of the game 10 minutes later. Arscott was the catalyst for a Sale comeback that very nearly netted them an impossible come-from-behind win in the race for a European Champions Cup place.
One can point to Arscott's perceived defensive weaknesses as a detriment to his potential status as Sale's Player of the Season; however aside from a missed tackle on Alex Lewington that saw the London Irish winger race away for the game-winning try (which also saw Mike Haley miss the covering tackle), this has largely been a non-issue for Arscott this season. Whilst perhaps not as defensively responsible as fellow winger Will Addison (who ranks as one of the best in the Premiership), Arscott's pace allows him to cover well in the open field and his defence has seen massive improvements since switching from fullback to wing. Individual mistakes can be highlighted for all those widely considered to have been Sale's most instrumental players this season so to discount Arscott for a poor missed tackle against Irish would be foolhardy. Players such as Cipriani and Braid, rightly or wrongly, have been given a far longer leash for their individual mistakes by both Sale fans and coaching staff this year and clemency must be afforded to Arscott when his attacking contributions are weighted.
Overall, the argument that Arscott deserves to be seen as Sale's player of the season can be divided into three main reasons. The first is the game-changing ability he has shown this year on the wing in attack that sees Arscott lead Sale Sharks in clean breaks, defenders beaten and tries scored which has massively complimented the groundwork and the platform laid down by the Sharks team, especially by Cipriani, Braid and Beaumont. Secondly, is the consistency Arscott has shown as Sale's most dangerous player this year from the first round of the season and four tries within the first three weeks of fixtures, right through to the end of the year where he has, at times, single-handedly attempted to resurrect Sale's hopes of qualifying for an automatic place in Europe's top club competition. Finally, we must consider the improvements Arscott has made from last season to this, going from the often-maligned, error-prone fullback, to the electrifying wing who is one of the first names on the team sheet week-in, week-out.
Who do you perceive to be Sale's player of the season? Arscott, Cipriani, Braid, Beaumont, Cobilas or Shalva Mamukashvili? Tweet and follow @SharkTankRugby on Twitter for more independent analysis and opinions.