Sale’s Exodus Continues – What Now on the Pitch?

Last night at a fans meeting with senior team management organised and hosted by the excellent Sale Sharks Supporters Club; Sale fans were given a third piece of terrible news this January; Rob Miller is following Henry Thomas, James Gaskell and Dwayne Peel out the door at the end of the season to continue his trade down south with another club with Wasps and Gloucester rumoured to be the interested parties.

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Now we can sit and debate the North-South ‘talent drain’ or the state of affairs for players behind-the-scenes at Sale Sharks until we’re blue in the face but a bigger question looms for Sale during Rugby’s silly season for recruitment: where does the team go from here on the pitch?

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Losing Thomas, Gaskell, Peel and Miller are huge blows for Sale, not just for the corporate ‘brand’ that is Sale Sharks but on the rugby field as well. Thomas (who has been displaced as first choice Tighthead Prop by a resurgent Vladim Cobilas) aside, Sale’s confirmed departures so far all by integral roles in the first choice 23.

Not considered by some as a ‘true’, international calibre No.8, James Gaskell has flourished nonetheless in the position since being moved there at the start of last season and has shown tremendous promise as a ball-carrier and all-round player at the back of the scrum, with the ability to run the line-out also.

Peel meanwhile has formed a deadly half-back partnership with incumbent Fly-Half Danny Cipriani and is clearly benefitting with the stronger scrum Steve Diamond has assembled in the last two years. His veteran savvy and experience has also proved valuable with Sale’s other two younger scrum-halfs; 25 year-old  Will Cliff and 20 year-old Nathan Fowles.

Rob Miller has shown perhaps the most promise and development since joining Sale as a 20 year-old and has been Sale’s first-choice Fullback for over 3 seasons now. Miller is also arguably Sale’s most potent attacking back with a strong boot and excellent place-kicking ability.

However whilst big losses, they are by no means irreplaceable.  Director of Rugby Steve Diamond has, in the last few years, built a deep squad featuring a mix of youth and more experienced talents and it is that depth that has helped Sale to 7th in the Premiership and the Amlin Quarter-Finals this year. But with all four leavers being key figures in this year’s side, Diamond, Redpath et al. face a tough challenge in building upon the success Sale have enjoyed this year in a positive rebound campaign this year. So how will they replace them?

The acquisition of 37 year-old former- British and Irish Lion Nathan Hines signals a change in the way Sale’s scrum will be constructed next season. As Diamond confirmed Wednesday night, the signing of Hines means Michael Paterson who has turned many heads playing in an unfamiliar position as a Lock this season will move back into his more familiar role as a Flanker/No.8

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from next year. With regard to the first team, I foresee Hines replacing Paterson in the Second Row alongside Jonathan Mills with Paterson becoming first-choice Blindside Flanker (as well as providing cover for No.8) alongside Daniel Braid and Vilhami Fihaki thereby negating the impact of Gaskell’s exit.

Similarly, it appears the vacancy at Fullback will not lead to Sale signing a direct replacement. Tom Arscott who signed from London Welsh last season and impressed early on in the season before getting injured will likely replace Miller as first-choice at fullback. One name to keep an eye on is 19 year-old Mike Haley who made his first team debut last season for Sale. An academy lad, Haley possess all the attributes; composure, confidence, pace, boot, to become a top Premiership Fullback and remains of Sale’s top prospects for the future; I’d expect him, with a few more run outs with the first team as this season comes to a close, to be given every opportunity to compete with Tom Arscott for first-choice 15 from next season. Interestingly, Diamond last night also alluded to the unfortunately oft-injured Will Addison as a potential option at 15 next season. An outside centre/winger Addison has struggled mightily with injuries in the last few seasons but has shown plenty of promise when fit.

However there are definite areas of need for Sale. The impending departure of Dwayne Peel leaves Will Cliff and Nathan Fowles as Sale’s only under-contract scrum-halves for next season. Cliff has shown competence at Premiership level but is more a squad player than a legitimate first-choice and would suit a rotation system better. Fowles has shown heaps of promise in his 14 appearances in the Sale side and is certainly one for the future however his game requires refining and he should not be thrust into the first-team squad next year. An experienced, top-class scrum half will be top of Diamond’s wish list and whilst there are rumours of a potential Greig Laidlaw signing, a more experienced player brought in to nurture Cliff and more importantly Fowles may be more realistic, think Peter Stringer at Bath.  Either would suit Sale’s current situation but personally I’d be hard pressed to think of a scrum-half I’d rather have than Laidlaw (or perhaps Joe Simpson whom I rate very highly and would serve as very nice retribution against Wasps.)

Finally, Props remain Sale’s biggest area of concern. With Henry Thomas and likely, Tony Buckley leaving come season’s end, Sale should be in the market for at least two more props to add to the squad. The aforementioned Vladim Cobilas has surpassed Thomas as first-choice Tighthead this season on the back of his strong scrimmaging and ability in the loose, but Sale would be remiss to not sign at least two more Tightheads; a ‘1A’ option to rotate games with Cobilas and a young (preferably English) prop to groom as a long-term replacement. Diamond has hinted he may make a move for another Loosehead Prop and have Eifon Lewis-Roberts play Tighthead which is a definite possibility but regardless Sale need at least two more Props (either side) – one who can come in and rotate into the first team and another younger player who can be brought through slowly (not dissimilar to what happened with Henry Thomas).

The nature of professional rugby dictates that Sale will probably sign and see depart roughly six or seven players this year in all positions, but losing four key members of the squad means Sale have serious holes to plug in their side. Two of these holes are more than likely to be fixed using in-house means or with players already part of the team all of whom can do just as good as job as those leaving; but at Prop and Scrum-half especially, Sale must target top-class talents to replace their outgoing stars lest they relapse into another disappointing bottom-three finish next season.

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