At the end of a weekend of beautiful, competitive European rugby (think Elliot Daly’s delightful slip out of the back door to Segun for Saracens, Finn Russell’s magic nutmeg grubber kick – the icing on an incredible fortnight for him personally – against Munster and Dan Biggar’s 83rd minute winning penalty against Benetton) Sale Sharks today face La Rochelle, two of the less famed, fancied and potentially underrated sides in this years competition.
Sale lack Russell’s glamour, but, as the Premiership’s only northern representatives, they are a side shaped in the image of their location and their coach, Steve Diamond. They are hard, abrasive and difficult to beat at home.
It would be, however, reductive to suggest that is all they are. Sale have some electric backs, try scorers with incredible numbers, like Chris Aston, Marland Yarde, Byron McGuigan and Denny Solomona. In Faf de Klerk, they also have the worlds best scrum half, a player as adept at playing fast and loose as he is controlling and suffocating.
Sale have been building in the background this last few years. They have yet to deliver but internally they are a squad bristling with ambition and full of confidence. The academy, which has been one of the nation’s best for five years or so is starting to bear fruits, with products such as Luke James, Aaron Reed and Cameron Redpath slowly but surely breaking in to the first XV picture. That is not to mention Tom Curry, the world’s best young openside, and his twin brother Ben, who wouldn’t be a bad bet for second best.
They have also recruited intelligently: Mark Wilson will add steel and experience, Simon Hammersley guile, whilst the Du Preez brothers are part of a wave of South African muscle that includes the indomitable Lood de Jager, so impressive at the World Cup. The South African contingent will suit Sale, suit Diamond’s mentality and suit their style of play.
Slowly but surely momentum is building again in the North West. The club were hit slightly, in terms of atmosphere and fan association by their move to Salford from Stockport (the days of actually playing in Sale, South Manchester, are long gone, although Friday nights at Edgley Park in the Stockport era were incredible). They are starting to recover and will be looking to kick on.
Knowing my luck, La Rochelle will probably put 50 on them today and this will look like a load of nonsense. But even if they do, it is not. Sale are quietly ambitious and their squad is full of talented players. Whilst struggling to find consistency, they sit third after four games in the Premiership. Expect them to surprise a few people.
Written by Joe Ronan.