Sale Sharks – A Season That Could Have Been

Danny Cipriani Sale SharksAfter a season of turbulence both on and off the pitch Director of Rugby Steve Diamond looks set to re-focus on steely workman like grit to try to make Sale Sharks a force at home and in Europe once again.

After a season that saw a new stadium, star signings, Heineken Cup rugby and top 4 predictions by some pundits, Dimes is set to begin building from the ground up once again as yet another overhaul of players occurs and Year 0 Mark II begins.

If last season was full of excitement with high hopes of a top 6 finish as minimum and players like Danny Cipriani lighting up the new Salford City Stadium, the build up to this season will be one of quite caution with just a hint of optimism.

If there’s one thing that the last couple of seasons has taught us it is that you cannot predict anything when it comes to Sale Sharks as two years ago Sale were expected to struggle in the league after a major overhaul of playing staff before eventually clinching sixth spot and a Heineken Cup spot. In contrast last year was one of great expectation after a handful of key acquisitions were expected to propel the club into the top 6 once again, what was to ensure nobody could have predicted though.

The 2012/13 season saw no less than three different Directors of Rugby in as many months, whilst a start consisting of seven straight Premiership defeats including an embarrassing capitulation at the hands of Premiership new-boys London Welsh failed to yield even a losing bonus point.

Matters off the pitch weren’t much better with a club official being sacked for posting offensive comments on Facebook and the DoR merry-go-round of Sale old boys Mitchell, Redpath and Dimes. This inconsistency coupled with the move to a new home clearly caused far more disruption to the players than many would have believed.

This is particularly obvious having seen the teams vast improvements since Dimes took full control of first team matters and helped lead the team to safety with games to spare (although a points deduction for London Welsh certainly didn’t harm). Dimes took the club back to basics and concentrated on creating a sound forward platform that the backs could play off, a tactic which paid clear dividends after a resurgence in form that saw Sale displaying top 6 form in the latter part of the season.

It is potentially this fact that is the most frustrating of all this season. Had Diamond done what we all know he is best at and stuck to coaching would we once again have been taking our place in the Heineken Cup and be building for another push on the top 4?

There are so many questions and what ifs after the season just gone, what would have happened had Redpath or Mitchell remained in charge, or where would we have ended up if we had remained at Edgeley Park? Whilst it is interesting to pose such questions, Sale can no longer continue to look backwards but must focus on the season ahead and ensure the mistakes from this year are not repeated once again.

It seems at last that the penny has dropped and that the senior staff at the club are looking to solidify their positions and build from the bottom up rather than the top down. Diamond has confirmed he will be in charge of rugby affairs for at least the next two seasons backed up by Redpath and Anglesea. In addition Mike Forshaw has signed on as defence coach and a kicking coach us purportedly joining in the near future.

This consistency is going to be key in helping to settle the team and help them build a strong foundation that will set the club in good stead for the future. Forshaw is a particularly astute signing having joined from Connacht who he helped lead into the Heineken Cup. His rugby league background should also help Sale adapt to the modern style of play employed by many top teams.

Whilst the new signings that have been announced are suitably underwhelming in comparison to the ‘stars’ of last year, they represent a new approach by the club which addresses some of the key failings of last season. These are the sorts of signings that will be consistently solid for the team, if somewhat unspectacular, but having seen the supposed brilliance of the likes of Richie Gray this season it’s hard to be too disappointed.

The likes of Tom Arscott and Phil MacKenzie will provide cover for departing players like Cameron Shepherd and Charlie Amesbury whilst forwards like Kirill Kulemin and Michael Paterson will provide some much needed grunt in the pack and allow the likes of Braid, Seymour and Gaskell to concentrate on their strengths rather than covering for others weaknesses.

I’m particularly excited by the signing of Andy Forsyth from Leicester, a highly rated young centre who many Tigers fans are disappointed to have lost. Joe Ford is another young playmaker set to join who will provide good cover along with hooked Dan Baines whilst flanker Charlie Walker-Blair could be a key acquisition if he can remain fit.

So far the new signings look solid and should help to address some of the consistent inconsistencies so often on displayer last season. That said the squad still looks a little light in some key positions, most notably in the front and back row. If we are to be anywhere near competitive next season it is essential an experience prop (Casto anyone?) is brought in immediately and a big ball carrying number 8, a position Dimes has already stated he is looking to recruit for.

Should we manage to recruit in these two positions then I will feel considerably more confident going into the new season. Hopefully a couple more will show the experience and leadership qualities so able demonstrated by Dan Braid after joining the club earlier this year. Braid has been such an important part of the teams change in fortunes since the turn of the year and is set to play a key role once again next season.

Sale currently have a crop of talented youngsters coming through who could be the cornerstone of a successful team in years to come, but need the experience of players like Braid to help them develop to their full potential. Patterson looks like he will be key in this area having led by example in a Cardiff Blues shirt and helped bring through some of their younger players.

In the pack Tom Holmes at lock has been consistently solid and is a hark-back to the days of Dean Schofield showing aggression at the break down and a willingness to carry the ball into places others would think twice about. James Gaskell’s move to 8 has also been a master-stroke with the ex-Saxons captain proving a revelation at the end of the season despite a difficult start to the campaign, and at just 23 he still has his best years ahead of him.

In the front row the trio of Tommy Taylor, Ross Harrison and Henry Thomas have been a cornerstone of a resurgent Sale pack  displaying all the qualities of players with years more experience. It is important however that the young triad aren’t over exposed to the riguours of modern rugby too early in their careers, and this is why it is of the utmost importance that experienced heads are brought in to lighten the load.

Whilst in the backs it is in the likes of Will Addison and Mark Jennings that Sale will look to create game changing moments of magic. Jennings has had a fantastic season and is believed to be highly rated by insiders at the club and England whilst if Addison can keep himself fit will be a huge player. Addison has shown on more than one occasion that he is not afraid to put his body on the line for the club whilst also being able to provide a spark that gets the team over the gainline.

It is also important to remember that Danny Cipriani is still only 25 and therefore potentially has his best years ahead of him. If he can display the kind of form he has demonstrated in flashes this season (20 minutes against Cardiff spring to mind) and tackle players like he tackles buses then he could be the difference in tight games.

A great deal of responsibility must also fall on the shoulders of senior players like Cueto, Roberts, Tuitupou and Seymour who must help to bring on the youngsters whilst keeping their heads up should the team take another dip in form.

Towards the end of last season Sale were showing solid consistency in their play whilst beginning to inject a bit of excitement into the backs which saw them score some exciting tries from backs moves. It is therefore important that although Sale retain a level of pragmatism that they do not remain too conservative and give the likes of Cipriani and Jennings the opportunity to let loose and do what they do best.

Whilst I will remain quietly cautious about the coming season, should Dimes manage to keep some consistency in the squad and back-room staff whilst adding a bit of grit into the pack and not over-coaching the backs into a paralysing stupor I feel the side can at the very least retain their Premiership status if not push on for a top 8 position.

As much as I would love to be predicting top 6 finishes and European glory it is important to remember how well teams around and above Sale are building for next season making it near impossible to predict who will be dragged into a relegation dogfight. However, with two or three more top acquisitions Sale should be able to remain solid throughout and hopefully kick on again and push for the top 6 in future seasons…

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