There is a truism about Sale Sharks, one that has been the dominant narrative around the club for many years, that they are a team moulded in Steve Diamonds image: hard, uncompromising but perhaps slightly uncultured. This was the source of their strength, and yet also their limitations. Difficult to beat at home, but without the class and guile to make the step up to the playoff spots.
Friday nights demolition of a poor Harlequins side showed that this is no longer the case. Sale now how the players and the performances to back up their evident ambition. The squad is wonderfully balanced, and deep enough to sustain a serious challenge. The club who last won the league in 2006, in the heady days of Chabal, Hodgson, Cueto and Robinson, look set again to compete with the very best.
What has changed? How can a club who has not reached the play offs since that great victory, whose last five league positions read 7th, 8th, 10th, 6th, 7th, now look capable of success? Well an excellent academy system and intelligent recruitment appear the two most obvious answers.
Sale have been unafraid to take a punt on players deemed difficult or disruptive, and the policy has paid dividends. Danny Cipriani, James O’Connor and Denny Solomona, amongst others, came to the club with complicated reputations, and yet all performed consistently. Steve Diamond deserves more credit for this than he has received.
Likewise, the signing of Faf de Klerk feels seminal. Of all the raft of South Africans at the club, Akker Van De Merwe, Rohan Janse Van Rensberg and Jean-Luc Du Preez chief among them, none is as influential as de Klerk. For Sale to have a player of his calibre in their ranks is a true statement of intent, that he seems happy and committed is a testament to the culture of the club.
It is fitting then, that if their first truly world class player is a big money signing, their other is a young homegrown talent: Tom Curry. Eddie Jones has seen a lot of good players in his time, and he rates the openside as one of the best he has worked with. It is self-evident to anyone who watches Curry play why. The man is relentless, dogged, inspirational. And, as commentators love to point out, there are two of him. His twin brother Ben may not yet have reached the starry international heights, but he captained the England U-20 side last year, and his contributions for Sale have been just as important.
Sale’s academy has been one of the countries’ best for years, now the club are starting to see the returns of their long term investment. Ross Harrison is one of the most underrated players in the league, so too Sam James. His younger brother, Luke, scorer of a superb individual try against Harlequins and capable of playing in the centre or at fullback, may yet prove even better. Aaron Reed, Cameron Redpath and others look set to make their mark soon enough.
Saracens’ points deduction has left the door to the top four ajar. Sale now have a real chance to capitalise.
Written by Joe Ronan.