Sale Sharks endured a torrid end to their season in 2014-15 culminating in a 23-25 home loss to Harlequins after being heralded as favourites to make a run on the play-off positions just a few weeks prior.
There were numerous talking points that emerged from the game, some limited to the match itself, but others that have been season-long issues.
Handling errors have become an obvious issue for Sharks throughout the season with catches being dropped, passes that are too short or long and players having the ball torn from them too easily while in possession.
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Against Quins, the problem reared its ugly head again with simple flat passes in the woeful first half performance coming off as pop-passes. This slowed their movement, allowing the visitors' defence to get into position and snuff out any chances for Steve Diamond’s men.
Dropped passes plagued Sharks last season and there are ways to prevent it carrying over into the new campaign. The NFL’s Denver Broncos had a similar problem last year with receivers dropping passes without pressure from defenders. Their answer was to put cover on footballs to make them purposefully slippery using a material similar to a training bib.
The only other option is to force players to wear rugby gloves as unlikely as that is. Either option is cheap, and would help Sharks overcome a frustrating but basic problem.
Passing and Speed
As mentioned above, Sale’s passing was inconsistent throughout games last year often swaying between quick and cumbersome. Sale’s sparse attacks against Quins in the first-half were undone by poor passing in the back-field.
Sale had a chance at the 20 minute mark to get a try on the scoreboard with available in attack and outnumbering Quins. However passes that were straight forward came off as long distanced pop passes. This killed the momentum in the backs and ultimately led to another turnover.
Things continued in the second half as passes were either too long or too short which would have resulted in more turnovers if it were not for great pick-ups by Tuitupou and Leota, for instance.
European fixtures at home where Sharks had a chance winning were also undone by slow play; the first-half performance versus Munster in particular.
The speed of play by Sale, or lack of it, is what often led to penalties being awarded to Quins by Wayne Barnes. Fans hounded Barnes throughout the match, and while it is true that his performance was ‘questionable’ you cannot deny that Sharks caused the majority of penalties by either being naïve or ignorant.
Barnes warned Sharks and told them to use the ball on countless occasions but Sale didn’t. With an international scrum-half on the pitch in Chris Cusiter, you expect better and that is what his opposite number, Danny Care, did perfectly. Care played with speed and took advantage of lackadaisical defending to score on the blind side as missed tackles were also at fault from the home side.
The introduction of Wigan Warriors assistant coach, Paul Deacon, as attack and kicking coach will no doubt improve the passing game and play to the strengths of Cipriani's creative play while Cusiter faces competition from news signing, Peter Stringer, for the starting job.
It’s an understatement to say that Mike Haley had a poor performance at the AJ Bell at fullback on against Harlequins, he had a shocker and was at for at least one try.
Haley’s up-and-unders were kicked too far for him to reach when challenging for catches, only making one or two in the entirety he was on the field – 49 minutes – often taking his eyes off the ball if he was there, leading to knock-ons.
His kicking became a major issue as his charged-down clearance led to Quins scoring through Charlie Walker and later in the game his attempted clearance to allow Sale to challenge in a line-out went straight to Quins through a wayward punt.
The academy graduate was one of the players who fell-asleep in defence, allowing Care to run down the blind side to score Quins’ fourth try and make it 22-6 at the break.
Haley was removed just before the 10 minute mark of the second-half, but mentally, the damage was done – he was gone and should have been brought off at the half-time break.
The 20-year-old has played well when called for but Saturday will look back on the performance key learning experience was he challenges Luke McLean for the starting position this season when Arscott no doubt moves to wing.
Steve Diamond has worked wonders with Sale since his arrival but there were some questionable decisions throughout last season, particularly in their late collapse.
Against Quins the decision to bench Tom Arscott who, without doubt, is one of Sharks’ best players and one of the league’s most consistent scorers, so to see him on the bench – given his recent form and later impact – was a surprise.
Haley gave a strong account of himself against London Irish, where Sale were again at fault for the loss with silly mistakes, but in a match as important as this one, Arscott should have started the match.
Second are decisions to make up to four changes almost immediately after half-time which begs the question ‘why?’ why not make the changes at half-time? It needs asking because, who knows, those extra 10 minutes on the field could have resulted in a win for Sale in must-win matches.
Finally bringing off Danny Cipriani for Joe Ford when Sharks are chasing a game when the fly-half did not appear to be injured was a curious and baffling decision against the London side.
Cipriani is the player you want on the field if you are chasing the game and need a spark of brilliance, as he showed with his kick to set-up Arscott for his first try of the match - a partnership that must flourish this year.
The winger-come-full back was a revelation last season and is in a prime position to take over from retired legend, Mark Cueto, as the Sharks' number one winger.
Breaking through the defensive line, Arscott has immense speed and quick feet to offer a dynamic paring with Tom Brady.
The former London Welsh wing has formed a strong relationship with Cipriani akin to that the fly-half shared with Cueto.
Keep Cips happy
After unfairly missing out on a world cup spot with England, Danny Cipriani has seemingly missed his chance to play at a major championship and faces the truth of being out of Stuart Lancaster's thoughts.
Cips' versatility and creativity should see him a certainty for England's XV, but Lancaster is content to have him on the bench or out of the squad.
Therefore, Sale must ensure consistently strong performances and contention or he may just consider his career and look at his options after declining a move to French powerhouse, Toulon with the hope of playing in the world cup.
If the 27-year-old is overlooked or benched in next year's Six Nations combined with a struggling Sale side, a move to the continent might look more attractive.
Ready to go
In the last two games, Sale were in a gift-giving mood and recorded two losses that should have been straight-forward wins that would have seen them as firm top-six contenders but are instead without any top-flight European rugby.
With some new additions and developed youth players, Sale are ready to go this term but must cut down on avoidable issues and the jeckyll and hyde approach to matches to make a return to the top tier of the Premiership and challenge for the top four.