This week’s European Opposition View comes courtesy of Lewis from Sale Sharks fan podcast ‘The Shark Tank’, who offers his thoughts on Sale’s season so far, their strengths and weaknesses, and predicts a comfortable home win.
How pleased are you with Sale’s season so far?
Middling. The investment in the playing squad over the summer courtesy of the team’s new ownership heralded a new era of Sale Sharks rugby and suggested the team could make a run at, if not the top-four this season, at least the top-six.
Unfortunately, the sparks generated off-the-field have so far struggled to catch fire on the field as Sale sit 9th in the Premiership with only four wins out of their first ten games (two of which have come over the last fortnight).
The promise is clearly there and many of the team’s early-season struggles can genuinely be attributed to ‘bedding in issues’. With players as dynamic as Faf de Klerk and James O’Connor joining the squad it’s no surprise that the team – long used to being a Frankensteinesque mix of academy talent, Premiership journeymen and All Black internationals who had two caps 9 seasons ago – haven’t all been singing from the same hymn sheet thus far.
However, the last couple of weeks have definitely seen the team start to turn the corner – a combination of players returning from injury and international duty along with proper resource allocation from a coach previously in love with having a 6-2 bench split for no reason, has seen the team win two on the bounce in the Premiership and four out of their last five in all competitions.
There’s hope for a top-six finish yet.
Where do the team’s strengths and weaknesses lie?
Sale’s strength lies in their backline. Seriously look at it – there’s an eye-watering collection of international-calibre talent at the club’s disposal:
Faf de Klerk, James O’Connor, Denny Solomona, Byron McGuigan, AJ MacGinty, Sam James and Mike Haley have all received international recognition in some form over the last three seasons, Will Addison would be part of that list if he hadn’t been cursed at an early age, inside centre Mark Jennings is criminally underrated around the Premiership, oh and Sale have just added England international winger Marland Yarde and Springbok centre Rohan Janse Van Rensburg mid-season.
Conversely, for all the firepower Sale have in their arsenal, the team doesn’t have a backup Loosehead they trust to play more than garbage time at the end of Challenge Cup games. We’re also lacking some serious weight in the second row.
Who has been Sale’s standout player this season?
For the very reason outlined above, it’s hard to look past Loosehead Prop Ross Harrison.
De Klerk, Solomona, and Scotland superstar Byron McGuigan have gotten most of the plaudits from neutral observers this year but Sale fans will – or should – agree unanimously that Harrison has been superb.
Playing 80 minutes week-in, week-out without a noticeable drop-off in performance? Hard to expect that from any player in the modern age, let alone for the second year in a row (seriously Sale why haven’t we signed a Loosehead over the last three years?)
Honourable mention to Bryn Evans, who the team falls apart without. See: Newcastle at home in September.
How much of a priority is the Challenge Cup for Sale?
Hard to say.
With the money floating about around the club, one would expect the mantra inside the clubhouse to be “Champions Cup or bust” – be that a top-six finish in the Premiership or a Challenge Cup win.
I would imagine the Premiership remains a priority over the Challenge Cup moving forward and that will probably be reflected in the team selection for Saturday’s game.
However if pool-stage progression becomes more likely over the next two weeks and that gap in mid-table widens once again, I could see Sale throwing everything behind the Challenge Cup. If you’re Simon Orange and Ged Mason, you want to see something for your money this season.
What have you seen of Cardiff Blues this season and what are you expecting from us?
Honestly, not a lot.
All I’m aware of is that, like us, Cardiff are off to a so-so start domestically but unlike us have rolled through the pool stages in the Challenge Cup.
I expect Nick Williams to run over the 18-year-old we’ll probably have start at No.8 (Sam Moore).
Prediction for Saturday afternoon?
On this week’s podcast I predicted 35-21 to Sale, so let’s go with that. Hoping for a sunny day at the AJ Bell and lots of tries.
Thanks to Lewis for his excellent responses, You can catch The Shark Tank Podcast, which is a weekly podcast about everything to do with Sale Sharks, on Twitter and subscribe to the podcast on Soundcloud and iTunes.