How Sale Sharks went from Premiership strugglers to pole position for play-offs

Manu Tuilagi (right) is injury-free and plays with a smile – Getty Images/Jan Kruger

A stop-start schedule has made it difficult to make an accurate assessment of some Premier League clubs this season. The most difficult parties to evaluate are Sale Sharks. At Christmas they were top of the league, at the end of March they were in eighth place and seemingly in need of life support.

Four league wins later, all with a bonus point, and Sale have slipped into the fourth and final play-off spot.

If they want to be assured of the top four, they need to beat Saracens at the StoneX Stadium, where they have tasted nine consecutive defeats. And yet one team always seems to be riding a late momentum to reach the playoffs. This is how Alex Sanderson’s forwards saved their season and gave themselves a chance.

The Manu Tuilagi factor

Tuilagi has benefited from a inconsistent calendar, limping out of Sale’s home win over Saracens on December 22 after suffering a grade three groin tear. Nearly two months later, Steve Borthwick called him up for the England squad. Tuilagi would not be used in a match until he came off the bench in Lyon more than four weeks later.

Since that spell with Aled Walters, which was essentially a mini pre-season, the 32-year-old has looked good. Early in the 42–24 defeat to Bath on 24 March, Tuilagi took a flat pass from George Ford and turned through Finn Russell’s tackle to score from 25 yards out. According to Stats Perform, he finished with 71 yards on 11 carries and beat five defenders.

Tuilagi has backed that up with Sale’s winning run with strong results against Exeter Chiefs (eight carries for 37 meters with three defenders beaten), against Harlequins (10 carries, 40 metres, five defenders beaten) and against Leicester Tigers (13 carries, 74 meters, one defeated defender). Although the numbers weren’t as eye-catching in the win over Newcastle Falcons – Tuilagi registered 12 meters from seven carries, beating three defenders – he ripped through midfield straight from a lineout to set up Joe Carpenter.

Today, Tuilagi, nestled in the middle, is a moments man; good for the occasional attack that bends the gain line to generate quick rucks, or the odd clattering tackle. Remember his goal against Santiago Chocobares during the World Cup and how that seemed to scare Argentina? Earlier this month, ahead of the win against Leicester, George Ford praised his old friend’s “pretty destructive” form. And of course, firing Tuilagi is just as dangerous as a decoy attracting defenders.

Offensive variation and set-piece planning

I stayed with Tuilagi briefly and it was interesting to hear him outline what has become his favorite aspect of the game during an interview with TNT Sports. He recorded the attacking movements, and attacking plays where everyone has a role, so that a try scorer comes in untouched. With Tuilagi as the central point, Sale is more dangerous here. Friday night provided a good example.

For the hosts’ first try, Ben Curry fired into the open end from a maul. He threw a pass over a circling Tommy Taylor to Tuilagi. Directly behind the trunk, Gus Warr shot and stretched.

Just four minutes later, with Tuilagi lurking in the outside center channel ready to cut another corner, Ben Curry dug in a second drive before bouncing to the blind side. Jack van Poortvliet was isolated in the five-meter canal. Sale took him away and Ben Curry released Taylor.

Paul Deacon, their head coach, is known as a detailed choreographer of strike plays. In Ford and Rob du Preez, as well as Sam James, they have numerous playmakers who are comfortable spreading the winning line evenly.

Furthermore, by continuing their attacking development, Sale looked slicker in broken field scenarios. Tom Roebuck (nine) and Arron Reed (seven) have plundered 16 Premiership tries between them this season. Wings are not as productive in teams that cannot play in space. Bevan Rodd and Ben Curry, one of the most skilled forwards in the league, often connect things beautifully.

Should they fail to make the play-offs, they will rue a poor spell on either side of the Six Nations – with losses to Northampton Saints, Bristol Bears, Gloucester and Bath – and a relatively meager number of bonus points.

They have just eight, one from the 21-17 defeat to Saints and seven for scoring four tries in a match. Sale’s total number of wins, 11, is the same as Saracens and is only surpassed by Northampton. Although the set-piece platform was inconsistent, Sharks do have firepower.

Returning players and a mid-season signing

If you want to see Sanderson dead serious, ask him how highly he rates Rodd. Sale’s rugby director is confident his 23-year-old loosehead prop will represent the British and Irish Lions.

As such, the returns from Rodd and Ben Curry have been a significant boost for the Sharks. Rodd, who was absent between November and March due to a toe injury, has won eight of his nine Premiership appearances this season. Ben Curry damaged an ankle in the Champions Cup defeat to La Rochelle, decimating Sale’s shares. Although he initially teamed up with England for the Six Nations, he only returned to the field due to his club’s defeat of Exeter. He has looked fantastic ever since.

Raffi Quirke and Tom O’Flaherty are two more returnees. The pair combined for a crucial try against Harlequins, with the latter curling in a kick from André Esterhuizen for the former to score.

Sale Sharks' Joe Carpenter celebrates with teammate Raffi QuirkeSale Sharks' Joe Carpenter celebrates with teammate Raffi Quirke

Sales have been boosted by the return of Raffi Quirke – PA/Owen Humphreys

Stay fit and the sparkling Quirke, a nice foil for Warr with a distinctive running threat that sets him apart from other scrum-halves at Borthwick’s disposal, will feature in the picture in England. Cobus Wiese, not as much of a marauding courier as his brother Jasper but an excellent lock nonetheless, is another who has emerged from injury problems well.

Back-five shares always look crucial at the sharp end of a campaign and Sale were staring at a crisis in January when Jonny Hill was ruled out for the season. Tom Ellis, Ernst van Rhyn, Wiese, Dan du Preez and the Curry twins have all been sidelined for some time and Josh Beaumont is unlikely to return to action this season.

With all that in mind, the short-term signing of Hyron Andrews, a 6-foot-1 second row, from the Sharks has worked well in South Africa. Andrews, who led Sale’s tackle count against Leicester, has allowed Sanderson to slot Sam Dugdale and Ben Curry into the back row either side of the formidable Jean-Luc du Preez. Tom Curry is also racing around in training. What a boost it would be to have him at the Saracens meeting.

Emotional pitch and muscle memory

Sanderson admitted on Friday evening that he wanted to challenge Sale’s doubters. However, this has made way for a week-by-week approach, with special attention to the dismissal of departing colleagues. Television cameras caught a warm embrace between Tuilagi, on the way to Bayonne, and Ford in the dressing rooms ahead of the win over Leicester.

That match, almost certainly the last home game that local boy Sam James will play as a Sale player, ended with him in tears on the pitch as he was named player of the match. Wiese is another departing player who has agreed terms with the Bulls.

Even at the elite level, where strategies are highly detailed, teams grab every bit of motivation they can. Of course, family tree also counts. Last season it was the Tigers, the reigning champions, who were on pace to reach the play-offs.

After losing in last year’s final, Sale knows how to behave at this time of year. Ford, Tuilagi, Luke Cowan-Dickie and Hill have all won the Premier League before. Agustín Creevy is a wise, gnarly leader.

Sale would have been targeting this final four-match series from some distance, consisting of three home games and a trip to Newcastle. Sanderson is confident his side will not lack intensity against Saracens. Win that one-off and who knows…

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