Tipped by many to challenge for a top-four place after securing the marquee signings of Scottish Lock Richie Gray and former England wonderkid Danny Cipriani, Sale, and their new “stars” instead fell flat on their face, after a woeful start to the season saw them end up embroiled in a relegation battle with London Welsh (and Irish) for the rest of the year.
After the swift departure of then Head Coach John Mitchell and the re-installation of Steve Diamond as the club’s Director of Rugby, Sale enjoyed a resurgence in the second part of the season and amassed the fourth most points out of any team post-Christmas – something which has Sale fans such as myself cautiously optimistic for a new season.
Diamond’s recruiting for this season has followed a different route in previous years. Gone are some of the “bigger” names from Sale’s squad last season who performed poorly during the club’s awful start to the season and who were suspiciously absent during the team’s successful streak in the latter part of the season. Players such as former Wales No.8 Andy Powell, the aforementioned Richie Gray and fellow Scottish internationals Richie Vernon and Alisdair Dickinson are all leaving the North West for pastures new although it should be known that only Dickinson and London Wasps bound Kearnan Myall consistently cracked the starting XV during the team’s dramatic turnaround in the latter part of the season.
But Diamond, perhaps not out of choice considering the disappointing 10th place finish for Sale last season, has opted not to chase the bigger names to replace the outgoing players but instead has brought in players who “play for the shirt rather than the name on its back” according to Diamond himself. Headlining the new recruits are Cardiff Blue’s flanker Michael Paterson, former Leicester Tigers’ youth stalwart Andy Forsyth and London Welsh captain; Jonathan Mills – along with a yet unnamed international No.8 from the Southern Hemisphere, due to join the club in November – a far cry from a year ago.
Indeed, the biggest addition to the team this year might come in the shape of new defence coach Mike Forshaw – a man charged with fixing a defence that has conceded the most points in the Aviva Premiership for three out of the last four years. Forshaw joins deposed former Sale DoR Bryan Redpath and Pete Angelsea as the coaching staff tasked with helping Diamond corral his team into securing a Heineken Cup place – an achievement Diamond secured his first season at the club (2011/12).
So where do Sale stand this season? Steve Diamond has once again regained full control of rugby matters at the club, and that, along with the addition of a sorely needed defence coach, the drastic turnaround the team experienced after Diamond took control last season and the removal of a number of large egos that weren’t necessarily pulling their weight (not naming names) should stand Sale in good stead for the upcoming season.
Dan Braid, Jonathan Mills, Sam Tuitupou and Dave Seymour should provide experience and leadership for a team that is brimming with young English talents such as Henry Thomas, Rob Miller, James Gaskell etc. and without the demands of the Heineken Cup, Sale should rebound nicely from last season’s debacle.