After enduring a season that most Sale fans will wish to rapidly confine to the history books things started off a little differently this year. An unexpected victory down in Kingsholm on the opening day of the season saw Sale topple much fancied Gloucester in what was considered by many to be the shock of the round.
Unfortunately the positivity was rapidly replaced by an all too familiar sense of despondence after a narrow home defeat to newly promoted Newcastle Falcons. Despite all the stats being considerably in their favour, Sale’s inability to turn territory and possession into points cost them dearly.
Although the defeat did not result in any knee-jerk reactions from Sale Director of Rugby Steve Diamond, he did make one or two key tweaks to the match day squad, the most eye-catching of which was the return of the prodigal son Danny Cipriani to the team. Although not in the starting line-up it seemed inevitable that Cipriani would be introduced at some point to stake his claim for the number 10 shirt.
The first 25 minutes of the game resulted in the most tedious game of rugby I’ve seen in years as the Tim Wigglesworth-show was punctuated by periods of rugby that usually ended in a knock-on. It was at this stage that Danny Cipriani was introduced to the fray after incumbent fly-half Nick Macleod picked up a knock and had to be replaced.
Whilst the platform for the victory was based on the hard work and determination of the Sale who for the most part managed to keep hold of their own ball and put pressure on the Wasps forwards, without Cipriani it would be easy to imagine Sale slipping to another narrow defeat. His clever kicking game and varied distribution ensured Wasps were on the back foot for much of the match and struggled to really get into the game on more than a few occasions.
Cipriani has much much maligned for his purported defensive frailties in recent seasons but on Friday night he showed a new dogged aggression in his defence. That’s not to say he was putting in the kind of defensive display of a Jonny Wilkinson but he showed commitment in his tackles and defended his line well throughout the game.
However it was in his attacking play that we saw the real reason Steve Diamond sought to bring Cipriani to the North West. His clever little off-load in the first half set up a try for Mark Cueto before he went over himself in the second half. It was these kind of clever and varied off-loads that Sale were missing last week in the game against Newcastle were after witnessing Friday’s performance you can’t help but feel that Cipriani may have been able to alter the result.
Whilst Friday night was still some way off Cipriani’s brilliant best (Sale fans may remember his sublime cameo in the Heineken Cup against Cardiff) it is important to remember this was his first competitive game since the end of last season so he is still several weeks behind some of his colleagues.
Whilst it’s still early days, Cipriani showed flashes of the ability that could see him become the long-term successor to Sale legend Charlie Hodgson. Over the last few years Sale have been crying out for a fly-half who can consistently hold down the number 10 shirt and in Cipriani it looks like they final have the right man.
There are still plenty of areas for Cipriani to work on in his game if he is to truly make it at Sale but behind a pack who finally seem to be on the front foot he could be set to flourish this season. We’ve always known Cipriani has the attacking talents most players can only dream of but should he continue improving on his defensive play he could be the key to ensuring Sale avoid another relegation dog fight this season.