Who Are the ‘Real’ Sale Sharks?

Sale Sharks v Bath Rugby - Aviva Premiership

Sale Sharks are the ultimate ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ side. Top four contenders at home, yet relegation candidates away from the AJ Bell Stadium. Fans are starting to ask “who are the real Sale Sharks?”

Stabilising the club in the 2016/17 season, Steve Diamond set lofty ambitions for the new campaign. Optimism was high in the North-West after a solid preseason. As well, several new signings are bedding in. New boys, Faf De Klerk and James O’Connor, might well elevate this club into one that should challenge the established elite.

A Tale of Two… Grounds?

Supporters optimism crashed to earth in shuddering fashion after the opening weekend. Conceding 50 points away to last season’s high flying Wasps was not the start the Sharks wanted. Securing a single try bonus point did little to alleviate the early disappointment.

Returning to Manchester the following week, should have set the record straight. However, a ‘turgid but tight’ affair followed against an in-form Newcastle side. The Sharks were ahead heading into the 74th minute, and should have taken all four points on offer. In an instant, that hope was lost [like the result, a 12-13 loss]

Played 2, Lost 2.

Playing away is a part of any professional sport and league. That includes the Aviva Premiership 2017/18, as much as the offshore fixtures of the Challenge Cup. Sale must be as confident at any ground.

Gladly, bouncing back against newly promoted London Irish allowed the Sharks to kick-start their season. They collected all five Aviva Premiership points on offer. For a minute, fans breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Diamond was optimistic and felt that the problem came from the fundamentals; “the mindset is that after Newcastle we didn’t get our basics right. We had worked all pre-season on them and that had gone well.

“I think against London Irish we showed what happens when we stick to our plans and our basics are done well.”

Back to Earth With a Thud

Next up, the unforgiving task of visiting the home of the European Champions.  It didn’t end well. Unable to keep up with the near-International class of Saracens 41-13, the Sharks failed to come away with a single point.

Feeling that bump on the head after the trip to London, the reset button was pressed again. And the following two matches perfectly demonstrate Sale Sharks’ up-and-down season. Notching up Gloucester’s biggest ever defeat at fortress AJ Bell one-week; the Sharks were blown away in the first half by Harlequins the next.

Will the ‘Real’ Sale Sharks Stand Up

Spirit has never been lacking in this side. Securing a try-bonus point against Wasps pointed to the attacking ability within Diamond’s side. A comeback was briefly on the cards at the Stoop with a typical never-say-die attitude clearly on display.

However, again the Sharks only came away with a try-bonus point. The questions raised are ‘when will the real Sale Sharks stand up?’

The squad contains exciting personnel, blending talented youth with seasoned competitors. Packed with this destructive ability, only table-toppers Saracens have scored more points – or tries – than Sale Sharks this season. As an example, England’s devastating Denny Solomona (see below video) occupies one wing whilst current ‘intercept king’ Byron McGuigan lines up on the other.

A strong half-back pairing of Faf De Klerk and AJ McGinty instrument the Sharks gameplan to ‘release the backline’ at the right moment. Diamond also has the enigmatic James O’Connor to integrate when fully fit. It would seem the strengths lay in numbers nine to 15.

Add to that the exciting Curry twins; Ben and Tom. They add dynamism around the field to a back-row that also includes Scotland’s work-horse Josh Strauss. So the loose forwards are certainly not holding down the side.

Problems Appear in the Set Piece and Tight Forwards

Given Director of Rugby Steve Diamond’s reputation for set-piece solidarity, this season’s failings are surprising. Numerous problems at line-out and scrum-time have plagued the continuity of the Sharks open game plan, resulting in a lack of possession.

Injuries have dogged every club so far this season but an key injury to the versatile Josh Beaumont comes at a bad time. Consequently, Sale are now looking to add a new second-row replacement to the squad.

“With Josh getting injured we’re out in the market for a world-class lock, and with Johnny Leota and Will Addison out we are also in the market for a world-class centre”

Diamond told Premiership Rugby that issues with injury include looking for replacements. The search is on, but the club knows that the key player will be back. “He’s had a few injury setbacks but he’s only 23 and he’s still a young lad.”

2017/18 Prospects for the Sharks?

Sitting ninth in the League is not where this club intends to be. Sale’s squad of full of honest, hard-working individuals but it is just not clicking for them on the road. However, with the likes of O’Connor still to stamp his authority on this team, there is plenty more to come from Sale.

Faf de Klerk in particular is taking the on leadership responsibilities that Sale need, and the former Lions Super Rugby player will grow in the role.

As Diamond eludes to, the sides foundations are key. Away from home, the Sharks must create a platform to launch their devastating attacking weapons free. While releasing those weapons is a key to success, being mindful of ‘when and where’ is critical.

Give Diamond Time to Sort Out the Issues

Diamond is a master at sorting out scrum and line-out problems. Expect those ‘tight-forward fundamentals’ to be their strength by the end of the season as a result. Realizing the potential, and then mastering the groups abilities will help sort out the issues.

Asking ‘Who are the real Sale Sharks?’ will be the question on fans minds. But with patience and understanding, the ‘real’ Sharks team will reveal itself.

Most of all, if Diamond can find the right formula away from home and get the basics absolutely rock-solid at home, then this team will push the establishment very hard.

“Main photo credit”
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