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

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Published Time: 13.05.2024 - 13:40:24 Modified Time: 13.05.2024 - 13:40:24

Manu Tuilagi factor and emotional pitch are just two of reasons why Sale have rescued their season and given themselves a shot Getty Images/Jan Kruger A stop-start schedule has made it difficult to make an accurate assessment of some Premiership clubs this season

Manu Tuilagi factor and emotional pitch are just two of reasons why Sale have rescued their season and given themselves a shot

: Getty Images/Jan Kruger

A stop-start schedule has made it difficult to make an accurate assessment of some Premiership clubs this season. Foremost among the trickiest sides to evaluate have been Sale Sharks. Top of the league at Christmas, they were down as low as eighth by late March and seemingly on life support.

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

If they are to be assured of the top four they must beat Saracens at StoneX Stadium, where they have tasted nine consecutive defeats. And yet, one team always seems to ride on late impetus to reach the play-offs. This is how Alex Sanderson’s charges rescued their season and gave themselves a shot.

The Manu Tuilagi factor

A disjointed calendar has benefitted Tuilagi, who limped out of Sale’s home win over Saracens on December 22 after suffering a grade three groin tear. Almost two months after that, Steve Borthwick called him up to the England squad. Tuilagi would not be used in a game until he came off the bench in Lyon, over four weeks later.

Since that spell with Aled Walters, which was effectively a mini-preseason, the 32-year-old has looked in fine fettle. Early in the 42-24 loss to Bath on March 24, Tuilagi took a flat pass from George Ford and spun through the tackle of Finn Russell to score from 25m out. He finished with 71m from 11 carries and beat five defenders, according to Stats Perform.

Manu spinning and stepping to the line ⚡️A classy finish from Manu Tuilagi as @SaleSharksRugby take the lead.#GallagherPrem #BATvSAL pic.twitter/9Mo1OJ1Rza

Tuilagi has backed that up on Sale’s winning run with strong returns against Exeter Chiefs (eight carries for 37m with three beaten defenders), against Harlequins (10 carries, 40m, five beaten defenders) and against Leicester Tigers (13 carries, 74m, one beaten defender). While the numbers were not as eye-catching in the victory over Newcastle Falcons – Tuilagi registered 12m from seven carries and beat three defenders – he tore through midfield directly from a line-out to set up Joe Carpenter.

These days, ensconced at inside centre, Tuilagi is a moments man; good for occasional charges that bend the gain-line to generate quick rucks, or the odd clattering tackle. Remember his hit on Santiago Chocobares during the World Cup and how that appeared to spook Argentina? Earlier this month in the lead-up to the win against Leicester, George Ford saluted his old mate’s “pretty destructive” form. And, of course, a firing Tuilagi is just as dangerous as a decoy that attracts defenders.

Attacking variety and set-piece planning

Sticking with Tuilagi briefly, it was interesting to hear him outline what has become his favourite aspect of the game during an interview with TNT Sports. He pinpointed set-piece strike moves, and attacking plays where everyone fulfils a role so that a try-scorer walks in untouched. With Tuilagi as a focal point, Sale are more dangerous here. Friday night offered up a good example.

Sit back and enjoy some of the best of @Manutuilagi ????Tune in now to watch him in one of his last games for @SaleSharksRugby!#GallagherPrem | #SALvLEI pic.twitter/U9kC6nfmkE

For the hosts’ first try, Ben Curry arced out of a maul towards the openside. He threw a pass across a circling Tommy Taylor, to Tuilagi. Directly off the back of that carry, Gus Warr sniped and stretched over. 

Manu Tuilagi sets the platform and Gus Warr cashes in ????#GallagherPrem | #SALvLEI pic.twitter/Bm8ZPcE3od

Barely four minutes later, with Tuilagi lurking in the outside centre channel poised to cut another angle, Ben Curry burrowed into a second drive before bouncing out into the blindside. Jack van Poortvliet was isolated in the five-metre channel. Sale picked him off, Ben Curry releasing Taylor.

A try in his 150th game for Tommy Taylor ????#GallagherPrem | #SALvLEI pic.twitter/E474cdhiJ0

Paul Deacon, their head coach, is renowned as a detailed choreographer of strike plays. In Ford and Rob du Preez, as well as Sam James, they have numerous playmakers comfortable with distributing flat to the gain-line.

Additionally, continuing the attacking development, Sale have looked slicker in broken-field scenarios. Tom Roebuck (nine) and Arron Reed (seven) have plundered 16 Premiership tries between them this term. Wings are not that prolific in teams that cannot play to space. Bevan Rodd and Ben Curry, among the most skilful forwards in the competition, often link matters beautifully.

Should they fall short of the play-offs, they will rue a poor patch either side of the Six Nations – featuring losses to Northampton Saints, Bristol Bears, Gloucester and Bath – as well as a relatively meagre tally of bonus points.

They have just eight of those, one from the 21-17 defeat to Saints and seven for scoring four tries in a game. Sale’s total tally of wins, 11, is the same as that of Saracens and only bettered by Northampton. Although the set-piece platform has been inconsistent, Sharks do possess firepower.

Returning players and a mid-season signing

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

As such, the returns of Rodd and Ben Curry have been a significant boost for the Sharks. Rodd, absent between November and March because of a toe injury, has won in eight of his nine Premiership appearances this season. Ben Curry damaged an ankle in the Champions Cup loss to La Rochelle, which decimated Sale’s stocks. Though initially he joined up with England for the Six Nations, he only came back to the pitch for his club’s defeat of Exeter. Since then, he has looked superb.

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

: PA/Owen Humphreys

Stay fit and the sparky Quirke, a nice foil for Warr with a distinctive running threat that sets him apart from other scrum-halves at Borthwick’s disposal, will be in the England picture. Cobus Wiese, not quite as marauding a carrier as his brother Jasper but an excellent lock nonetheless, is another to have emerged well from injury issues.

Back-five stocks always seem 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 periods and Josh Beaumont is unlikely to feature again this season.

With all that in mind, the short-term signing of Hyron Andrews, a 6ft 7in second row, from the Sharks in South Africa has worked well. Andrews, who topped Sale’s tackle count against Leicester, has allowed Sanderson to team up Sam Dugdale and Ben Curry in the back row either side of the fearsome Jean-Luc du Preez. Tom Curry is tearing around in training as well. What a fillip it would be to have him for the Saracens encounter.

Emotional pitch and muscle memory

On Friday evening, Sanderson admitted that he wanted to defy Sale’s doubters. However, that has given way to a week-to-week approach with particular focus on sending off departing colleagues. Television cameras caught a warm embrace between Tuilagi, off to Bayonne, and Ford in the changing rooms prior to the win over Leicester.

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