If one was to determine who will hold the key to Sale's attacking play this season, Tom Brady would probably be quite far down the list.
More logical choices (in no particular order) would include Danny Cipriani, Will Addison, Tom Arscott, Mike Haley or even Sam Tuitupou.
Cipriani the mercurial, defence-unlocking talent as the Fly-half pivot. Will Addison as a budding star blessed with a combination of both tackle-breaking power and elusive speed. Tom Arscott, somewhat a late bloomer in rugby terms whose electric pace and great try-scoring instincts saw him become Sale's most potent offensive weapon last season. Mike Haley, a young fullback whose natural ability and physical stature suggest with the right nurturing and training, he could be an international star for England. And Sam Tuitupou, the bulldozing Kiwi/Samoan whose physical prowess allows him to punch holes in opposing defences for his teammates to exploit.
All of the above have, and will continue to, play a more pivotal role in Sale's attacking stratagem this season than Brady who, despite making over 100 appearances for his hometown team, has never quite showed enough, either as an attacker or in defence, to hold down a regular spot on Sale's wing despite being an ever present in the Sale squad over the last five seasons.
Indeed Brady's struggles with consistency can be epitomised by the 2014/15 season just past, as Brady failed to making the starting fifteen for Sale in the Premiership between the end of November and the end of April as he was surpassed on both wings by both the aforementioned Will Addison and Tom Arscott.
That's not to sell Brady short. Although opinion is split amongst the Sale faithful over Brady's true worth to the club with some lamenting his perceived lack of defence and ability to truly influence games, Brady is still a solid Premiership player. Whilst he is neither the strongest nor quickest wing to be found in European rugby, Brady does possesses some physicality to break tackles and enough speed to justify his selection on the touchline. Additionally Brady's positional awareness and discipline is superb and probably his greatest asset. Many of Brady's 28 tries for Sale have come because he has been able to get himself into the right position at the right time and convert opportunities to score - an excellent attribute to have in a winger.
Unfortunately Brady's great positioning is countered by his so-so defence which has been plagued with inconsistencies. He has had a number of memorable defensive performances against top-class wings (look at the great job defensively he did to frustrate George North in Sale's 19-6 victory over Northampton back in March 2014), but then is just as liable to miss a simple tackle and unlike say, Mike Haley, he doesn't have the foot speed to recover putting Sale in a vulnerable position (see Anthony Watson's try for Bath against Sale in the first game of last season).
The point I'm making however is Tom Brady is a solid Premiership-level winger, capable of converting his chances and playing solid defence (most of the time) and is a nice rotation option for Sale to have even if he's never going to set the world alight.
Unfortunately that isn't going to cut it for Brady and Sale Sharks in 2015-16.
The Premiership competition for 2015-16 has improved drastically with the importation of world-renowned wingers by some of Sale's closest rivals a key reason for the increase in league-wide ability.
Teams such as Wasps, Gloucester, Harlequins and London Irish (the latter three who all finished beneath Sale in last year's competition) have all made significant additions to their wing depth with the arrivals of, amongst others, Frank Halai, Tom Marshall, Tim Visser and Sean Maitland, all top-six Premiership quality players.
As of today, the 17th July 2015 however, Sale, despite losing both Mark Cueto (retirement) and Luke McLean (Treviso) from their options amongst their back three who both played key roles in last year's first team, have yet to invest in any replacements for said players ahead of the upcoming season.
Whether this is due to insufficient transfer funds, a lack of appropriate talent left on the market due to Sale's seemingly late foray into negotiations for new players, or whether Director of Rugby Steve Diamond is waiting until the 2015 Rugby World Cup to pick up some unheralded names off the assembly line, I have no idea, (here's hoping its the latter).
However as I tweeted last week, the only indication from the club so far regarding any future back-three additions doesn't suggest any imminent dealings:
To come back to the titular statement then, if Sale are going to stick to their current selection of wingers and fullbacks, Tom Brady will be No.1 on the list of Sale players who need to raise their game in 2015/16.
One can presume as of this moment Sale's forecasted first choice XV will have Tom Arscott, Will Addison and Mike Haley starting at wing and fullback respectively.
This is fine, between the three of them there is an excellent blend of power, pace, territorial kicking ability, defensive accountability and game-changing talent. Also with that trio's relative youth when the season commences (28, 23 and 21 respectively) factored in, excitingly, there is still plenty of room and potential for Sale's go-to back three to grow into.
Beyond those three however, things become a lot more alarming.
First of all with McLean departing the club and Sale not having brought in a replacement, the only option beside Haley Sale hold at fullback is Tom Arscott, taking him away from his preferred (and more effective) position of left wing. If Haley goes down with injury or a loss of form, Sale's only alternative is to take one of their first-choice wingers off the touchline and plug him in at 15.
Secondly, Sale's depth in the back-three beyond their starters is to put it bluntly, mediocre. Phil Mackenzie, a Canadian international, has not played for Sale in the Premiership for nearly two years since joining from London Welsh. Charlie Ingall, despite impressing myself on the few opportunities I've had to see him play, made only two appearances for Sale last season - both in the LV Cup - for a measly total of 87 minutes. John O'Donnell is the most intriguing of the bunch, having represented Sale in last year's Premiership 7s competition and has since gone on to represent England in the Hong Kong 7s, however he has yet to make a single senior team appearance for the Sharks, and at 22, this season might be his only chance to stake a claim for a career in the 15-man game.
This leaves Tom Brady as the only somewhat regular first-team player feasibly able to step in and put in a suitable performance for a team that is, apparently, challenging for the Premiership's top-six.
Thus, this why I wrote this piece. As talented and promising Sale's current trio of back-three starters are, the depth behind them, especially if Sale don't make any moves to strengthen before the start of the season, is laughably thin. Whilst there are some intriguing prospects in the mix, Tom Brady represents the only other Sale winger who is anything close to being top-six standard.
In today's modern game, successful rugby clubs require deep squads with a number of supplementary players able to rotate into the first team squad without a noticeable drop-off in talent. With Sale not compeitting in the Champions Cup this season, they may be able to just about get away with a threadbare squad without any more key additions (except at Tighthead Prop which desperately needs investment *cough* Mujati). But if Sale are serious about challenging for the Premiership top-six this season, they need their experienced rotational first team players, i.e. Brady, to prove they can be of that quality.
With few options at fullback beyond rotating their first-choice wingers into that position and both Arscott and Addison's previous struggles with injuries (Addison in particular has been heinously unlucky with the injury bug), there is no doubt that Tom Brady will see a significantly increased role amongst the Sale first team this season and as a consequence he needs to make the leap from bit-part, rotational option, into a top-six calibre player able to influence games and perform consistently week-in, week-out.
This improvement needs to come in the form of increased strength and power which will allow him to break tackles in tighter spaces and become more efficient challenging for the ball in the air; increased foot speed to capitalise fully on broken field opportunities; and a tightening up of his defensive awareness and tackling technique. In the 2015/16 season Brady needs to be a genuine 1a/1b option on either wing who can slide into the first team, create and score his own try opportunities and not give away soft scores at the other end of the field.
If Brady is able to rise to the challenge, he would becomes the latest member of an extremely talented core of young, English players who Sale should and will look to build their first team around over the next decade; as well as likely garner England Saxons consideration again (maybe) and help propel Sale back into contention for a spot in next season's Champions Cup.
However if Brady isn't able to generate any noticeable improvement once domestic rugby resumes in October, Sale will be solely dependant on the talents of only Tom Arscott and Will Addison to carry the team on the wing, an alarming situation which is not indicative of a successful team. Sale cannot rely on only two wingers to be of Premiership standard for an entire season, especially if they are serious about rebounding from a somewhat underwhelming finish to the 2014/15 season.
Ideally by now, Sale would have brought in another international quality Back able to cover both wing and fullback to shore up Sale's shallow depth in those two positions. However as of today, that is not the case and therefore makes Tom Brady one of the most integral component to Sale's success ahead of the 2015/16 season.
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