The 2016-17 Season will not be one many Sale Sharks fans look back on with much joy. The team has been stuck in the lower reaches of the table from the season’s beginning having won only five league games so far. Fortunately for the AJ Bell faithful, Bristol have proved unable to capitalise on back to back wins over the Sharks and Worcester Warriors at the turn of the year and Sale currently have a comfortable sixteen point gap separating them from Mark Tainton’s side with seven games of the season left to play.
Why have Sale struggled? Ever since winning the title in the 2005/06 season, Sale have failed to live up to those same heights, the likes of giants such as Sebastian Chabal, Jason Robinson and Charlie Hodgson have not been adequately replaced and the team have bounced around mid or lower-mid table ever since. This season has proved particularly trying because teams who under-performed last year such as Bath and Newcastle have improved and the likes of Saracens, Wasps and Exeter have maintained their positions within the top six. Sale have therefore been left behind. Their summer signings, although many in number have failed to have the desired impact with Danny Cipriani and Tommy Taylor’s loss to Wasps being felt keenly.
On the upside, Sale have won their last two games on the bounce and came close to overhauling Harlequins at the Stoop the weekend before that. Sunday’s bonus point victory over Wasps was particularly impressive, with four tries scored within forty-five minutes, only for Wasps to hit back with three quick fire tries before the game was closed out in the final ten. The main contributor to, if not the architect of, the win was the Sharks’ newly-signed Kiwi flyer Denny Solomona. Although still subject to legal wrangling following his decision to walk-out on Castleford Tigers, Solomona has been in blistering form since he arrived in mid-December, scoring eight tries in five league games. It is no wonder commentators are tipping him for the England jersey.
Beyond this, later-mid season fatigue seems to be affecting a couple of the teams at the top of the tanle. Both Saracens and Wasps have lost in recent weeks and Sale couldn’t have had a better time to play the latter considering that Wasps are missing crucial players such as Elliot Daly and Joe Launchbury to England duty. That said, the manner in which they overran Wasps’ defence was a textbook example of clinical finishing, even though luck was heavily weighted in Solomona’s favour for his second try.
With the league as competitive as it is Sale will probably have to aim lower than sixth with a third of the season to go but will be looking to put in strong performances with games at home to Northampton and Worcester, and away against Gloucester looking particularly enticing for a revitalized attacking line. For those wins to be achieved, Diamond will be reliant on Centre Will Addison, Solomona and Full-back Mike Haley remaining fit and will take comfort in that his inexperienced forwards will only improve with game time.
But how will Diamond keep up the momentum? During the Wasps game, the BT Sport pundits discussed what Diamond needed to do in the transfer market to bolster Sale’s competitiveness. Having lost out on George Ford, names such as Tom Heathcote and Ian Madigan were raised to plug the hole at fly-half, whereas I believe the Centre, Scrum half and Second row positions could all do with an overhaul, with Sale’s squad varying between the very inexperienced (George Nott and the Curry brothers) to the ageing (Peter Stringer, Mike Phillips, Magnus Lund) will not an awful lot in between. Signing players such as Jimmy Gopperth, Charlie Matthews or Jaco Taute would help to improve Sale’s chances of Champions Cup Rugby in the future.