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These Sharks have Teeth: Premier 15s Round 3

By Claire Thomas
27th November 2022: Premier15s Warriors Women v Sale Sharks, Sixways Stadium. Photo credit: Neil Kennedy

I absolutely adore the more eclectic collective nouns for animals – a ‘pandemonium’ of parrots, a ‘mess’ of iguanas, or a ‘parliament’ of owls – but they sure got it wrong when they picked the term for sharks. It’s a ‘shiver’ of the things, which just sounds feeble: entirely at odds with what deliberate and lethal predators they are. It would’ve made no sense whatsoever on Saturday, when – although it was easily cold enough for a chilly shudder at Corpacq Stadium – Rachel Taylor’s outfit were fearless competitors, and clinched their single biggest result since their formation in 2020.

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Sale Sharks 15- 14 Loughborough Lightning 
The final whistle went, and the place erupted – as an enthralling 80-minute arm wrestle ended with the hosts adding another piece of history to an increasingly impressive season. DMP dispatched. Warriors overcome, despite being behind by 14 at the half-way mark. Lightning: met head-on, with tangible self belief, and sent home still in search of a win this campaign.

In contrast, all Sale have done so far this year is win, and their date with Harlequins on Saturday is suddenly a mightily tasty affair. They’re the best Sharks outfit we’ve ever seen – by some margin – and the 2021 champions will almost certainly take one look at their confidence, their togetherness, and their burgeoning scalp collection, and think: ‘we’re going to need a bigger boat.’

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Another RugbyPass columnist, I believe, has plans for a deep dive into these shark-infested waters, so this will be a shallower exploration of the side. Here’s, as far as I can make out, how they managed their greatest win to date this weekend.

Firstly: Sale have built their best squad yet. It’s a rich tapestry of youth and experience – with players from both just down the road and all the way across the pond. There’s an impressive scattering of locally-sourced Northern grit across the side, from Player of the Match Vicky Irwin (the one who plays at flanker. There are, ridiculously, two Vicky Irwins at Sharks…) to the prodigious Lizzy Duffy, who came through their Centre of Excellence and was recently named in the England U20 training squad.

There’s also talent from across the rugby world: Home Nations representatives in Sarah Law, Jess Taylor-Roberts, and Lauren Delany – and a healthy dose (technically a ‘convocation’) of Eagles. Two of them – Carly Waters and Alycia Washington – were only signed this summer, and have made an instant impact. The former Saracens scrum-half injected transformative tempo from the bench this weekend, and the prolific forward Washington was at the heart of their fightback against Worcester – her last club – in Round Two.

These marquee players are combining beautifully with some of Sharks’ greener arrivals, who are – and this is indicative of an environment which is really working – coming good already. England U18 representative Niamh Swailes was Saturday’s Jude Bellingham: a whipper snapper coolly going about her business – impervious to the size of the occasion. Similarly, Courtney Pursglove is living in some sort of egg-chasing fairy tale right now – not that she’s unduly fazed by the fact.

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Show-stealing at Twickenham whilst representing the Army last Spring, invited to train with England 7s, and then snapped up by Sharks – where she’s thriving. I loved my half hour on the phone with Taylor on Friday, but never smiled more than when hearing her discuss the young winger – who is apparently so relaxed during training that she’s practically horizontal, and plays with such infectious joy that she has the Head Coach half tempted to lace back up again herself.

Taylor sang the praises of her seasoned campaigners – the leadership of her co-captains, Delany and Georgie Perris-Redding, and how Nick James expertly leads scrum sessions – but was also effusive about her young talent. ‘They’ll change women’s sport over the next few years. It’s exciting for me to work with them because I know they’ll go on to do great things. I’m teaching them all I can, but hopefully I can learn from them as well.’

This blend of backgrounds and experiences is potent, but has necessitated a real emphasis on cohesion. It’s not as simple as parachuting your World Cup stars into your matchday 23, it transpires. Every coach I’ve spoken to about this, is of course, delighted to have them back, but they’re returning to teams who’ve completed preseason together, and battled through four rounds of Allianz Cup action.

Combinations are gelled, styles of play settled, and there’s that sense of familiarity which only comes with shattered post-conditioning fist bumps and far too much time in one another’s company. Change too many cogs, too suddenly, and the mechanism won’t work anything like as smoothy – and you don’t want to ruffle feathers by selecting purely on the basis of how many international caps or medals an athlete has in their sock drawer.

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Lightning Head Coach Rhys Edwards speaks really well on this: he’s not afraid to hand a teenager a debut ahead of a household name, if that youngster has trained the house down all week, and the international hasn’t. Taylor concurs: her World Cuppers have returned to unprecedented standards at Heywood Road, and it’s up to them to buy into that. There’s selection on the line – coupled with Sharks’ innovative approach to discipline. Fall short of those expectations? They’ve marked up a dice with a selection of fines, including enforced lip sync performances, and there are weekly reckonings.

As Leah Lyons told us at half time: ‘we all fear the Tuesday dice rolls…’ The coach has used one image over and over this season: that of a rope. She wants her squad to be a strong collective, formed of diverse but compatible fibres – a simile which went on to inspire an evening’s team bonding at a local rock climbing centre. The message is clear: we’re stronger together, and when pulling in the same direction.

A cohesive and well-rounded squad isn’t necessarily enough to win a rugby match, though – and it was Sharks’ ability to take their chances and ride Saturday’s multitude of momentum swings which saw them through. Daisy Hibbert-Jones, who had signed for Loughborough from Sale this summer, scored with just seven seconds on the clock, and the floodgates could easily have opened.

Despite missing several key players, Lightning had a mighty pack at their disposal, and giants to summon from the bench – but Sale owned the key moments. They made life so uncomfortable for their opponents – at the set piece, at the breakdown, and with some rib-rearranging midfield defence – that Lightning just couldn’t find any rhythm, and Sale pounced when it mattered most.

As the excellent Rocky Clarke observed in commentary: it wasn’t a try-a-minute game, but it was engrossing – played at the sort of tempo which had us out of breath just trying to call it. Back and forth the pendulum swung – from pink, to blue, to African violet, and then all the way back again – accompanied by the ever-more enthusiastically-thwacked drum of the Sharks faithful.

They took the three points on offer with twenty to go, and then Perris Redding did something as utterly outrageous as it was conclusive. The openside drifted across the park to provide breakdown support for Kay Searcy and Katana Howard (who was brilliant, by the way) – only to pilfer the pill herself. She set off, sold Helen Nelson a cute two-handed pump, and was away and clear. A scandalous score, from a tenacious player, within a team full of go-getters. It won them the game.

Sharks find themselves in second place – with thirteen of a possible fifteen points. The hill only gets steeper, though: the Stoop awaits, before a brutal, lump-of-coal Christmas gift in the form of a visiting Saracens Wolfpack. But, as Taylor posed post-match: ‘why can’t we have a crack at those teams?’ Sale are growing comfortable being right in the mix with the league’s best, and are less and less afraid to go out and take them on. Self belief ‘is definitely the best it’s ever been,’ Irwin added. ‘This is our year.’

Three down. Miles to go. Taylor said in the week that they’re not ‘naïve enough’ to think they’ll win the whole thing, but this year’s Sharks certainly have teeth, and Saturday’s scalp-taking performance was proof of that.

My proposal is this: forget ‘shiver’. That’s not applicable here: not this season. It’s time we appreciated the progress taking place up North. This is the year of Sale’s collective ‘threat’ of Sharks.

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