In the long history of Sale Sharks, the past decade reads like a weary trudge through mediocrity. Across that ten-year spell, the club have never finished higher than sixth in the English Premiership, slap-bang in the middle of the table. Since winning the title in 2006, their best placing is a single berth higher.
They have competed in the second-tier European Challenge Cup in three of the past four seasons, during which time they have ended the Premiership campaign sixth, tenth, eighth and seventh. Last term, they won exactly half of their 22 league matches, typically filled around half of the seats in their 12,000-capacity AJ Bell Stadium, and only relegated Newcastle Falcons scored fewer points. For a team with some marvellous attacking players, it was a pitifully impotent return.
No longer are Sale content to middle along like this, following shooting-star performances with meek beatings. In the summer, they tooled up in a massive way, spending more than they have ever done in Steve Diamond’s eight years as director of rugby, maxing out the salary cap with an army of South African juggernauts. The Sharks are banking on success and inflating crowd figures to help justify the outlay.
In have come some monstrous specimens. Springboks Coenie Oosthuizen, Akker van der Merwe, and the brilliant Embrose Papier, World Cup-winner Lood de Jager, all three Du Preez brothers, England scavenger Mark Wilson and more besides arrived.
Four of their players – De Jager and Faf de Klerk for South Africa, Wilson and Tom Curry for England – featured in the World Cup final. Sale have crowed about their unprecedented depth this season and the talk has obvious substance. Without their international contingent, they are fourth in the Premiership table with the league’s best points difference. As a team, they have beaten more defenders than any other side and conceded the fewest points. The two games they lost, at Gloucester and Bristol, were exceedingly tight affairs.
This is a squad armed with more ammunition than it has been for years, and this is the challenge rumbling north towards Glasgow on Saturday, the first skirmish of a fiendishly tough Champions Cup group to predict.
None of Diamond’s finalists will play, and nor will the stricken Josh Beaumont, a thoroughbred lock, rapier centre Rohan Janse van Rensburg or the prolific Denny Solomona, who has racked up 41 tries in 68 Sharks appearances. That is a serious bonus for Warriors, but Sale will feel the weaponry they have in their stead is enough to get the job done.
‘Most teams in Europe have fines if you arrive late, but we think making players understand that to be on time is a value is more important’
– @MarcoBortolami tells @heagneyl about the transformation at @BenettonRugby to get back into @ChampionsCup https://t.co/utb25EvECk
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 16, 2019
USA pivot AJ MacGinty is a canny play-maker and on the bench Rob du Preez, the eldest of the trio of siblings, is the Premiership’s top points-scorer. Twins Dan and Jean-Luc are rugged, bludgeoning loose forwards, the sort of confrontational bruisers Glasgow and Scotland are often accused of lacking.
You shudder at the thought of the food bill in the Du Preez household while these three were growing up, and you marvel at the Curry twins – Tom, one of the finest open-sides in the game and Ben, immensely effective for Sale with Test recognition a strong possibility.
Papier may not be De Klerk, but he can break as though fired from a cannon. There is a great swell of excitement around Cam Redpath, the son of former Scotland captain Bryan who has nailed his colours to England’s mast and starts at outside centre. Simon Hammersley is a lovely, balanced runner at full-back, an astute pick-up from relegated Falcons.
The French raid for Shaun Edwards has left Clive Woodward annoyed https://t.co/XOz8UhDXQg
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 14, 2019
Byron McGuigan, the former Glasgow back, has started the season in blistering form after being left out of Scotland’s World Cup squad, and gets a shot at his old side. Marland Yarde is back playing and scoring, at long last, from an awful knee injury 13 months ago, and the deadly Chris Ashton is among the substitutes.
Diamond himself is by turns bombastic, uncompromising and divisive. He has a long and ugly disciplinary rap sheet. In recent seasons, he has been sanctioned for abusing match officials, publicly accusing a referee of “making decisions up”, and pushing an opposition staff member, and has also made derisory remarks about concussion protocols. Last year, he was involved in a particularly unsightly altercation with a journalist who had written a withering piece painting the coach as domineering and out of touch, offering the reporter outside the press room where part of the bizarre row was caught on film.
Nevertheless, some of the biggest names to have played under him – James O’Connor, Danny Cipriani, De Klerk – speak about the brawny former hooker and what he has done for their careers in glowing terms.
What Diamond, unsurprisingly, wants to construct is a game plan founded on a style he sees as the traditional forward-dominated Sale way. He wants to create the depth and quality to field two equally potent packs of snarling behemoths, the kind of muscle Philippe Saint-Andre assembled in the title run of 2006.
Some pre-match reading for @EdinburghRugby fans. Summer signing Mike Willemse talks new attacking focus, constraints at the Kings and having Siya Kolisi as a dormitory prefect at school. https://t.co/GibZEfABm0
— Jamie Lyall (@JLyall93) November 15, 2019
This is the very antithesis of Glasgow rugby. Warriors do not play with the glorious but often detrimental abandon of Dave Rennie’s first year in charge, but they will never look to club teams into submission with a huge pack. The Glasgow blueprint is about speed, explosiveness and precision.
The rejuvenated and reinforced Sharks present their first serious test of the season and a monumentally important one. The early rounds of the Pro14 have not been impressive, a high-altitude shellacking in Bloemfontein, a home defeat by Scarlets, a dull win over Cardiff Blues and an even duller loss to Dragons, followed by heartening bonus-point victories over Southern Kings and Zebre, the league’s weakest teams.
Lose a few Pro14 games in the early throes and you have ample time and opportunity to claw back the difference. Lose at home in the Champions Cup, even in the first round of matches, and you’re up against it in a big way.
For all that he was unavailable to Glasgow for swathes of any given season, Stuart Hogg is a colossal loss, especially in this most ruthless of competitions. Rennie cannot recruit a player of his calibre to plug the gap and so he has trusted Tommy Seymour, the veteran winger, to fill the void at full-back.
If the New Zealander is to leave come summer, and the indications are that he will, then this is his third and final crack at the Champions Cup. With Glasgow horsing the Pro14 in his debut season, he underestimated the ferocity of the continental top tier and his team were duly battered. The following campaign, they got to the last eight and took an almighty pasting from Saracens.
Sale’s record on the road was grim in the last campaign, only two away wins across the entire Premiership season. Glasgow have lost only twice in 10 matches at home to English opposition. Wielding more muscle and more quality, Sharks will expect to fetch up at Scotstoun and administer a physical pummelling. Glasgow will back themselves to outmanoeuvre the bruisers in their midst. The upshot will be fascinating and crucial.
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