Down to the wire

April 17th, 2010

writes Thomas Stanley

Saturday 17th April 2010

It’s a gloriously sunny weekend, and all flights are cancelled due to the volcanic ash way up there. Peace in Heald Green and Knutsford: people can’t sleep for the silence!

All is not well with Sale Sharks. They needed to do better against a rejuvenated Saracens team, and are hoping that a win against Newcastle will be enough. It should be: the other two protagonists are up against each other at Headingley two days later.  Talk about an eight-pointer!

In the end, it may go down to number of wins when points are level, which is where the unimaginative Sixways side have run out of steam.

Sharks are now having to forget the rotation policy and ask their best 23 available to ‘do the business’ for them. We hope that the team tactics may be adventurous.

Leeds Carnegie might survive another term, but they apparently don’t like dry grounds. Theirs is worse than Edgeley. They’ve got a good side in the ‘A’ League: trouble is, it’s about as good as the firsts!

Of course I want my beloved Sale team to survive, but if they do, they’ll have to learn from this year’s experience.  There are players who need to be released.  Miller and Satala have been signed for next year, and there’s talk of a big lock (?) on his way. It was like this ten years ago, when BK arrived, and it took another two years before the silverware was displayed in the cabinet.

Let’s be safe, then review the coaching balance/level of experience; the handling errors; the predictable ploys among the backs; the lack of back-up props. 0-38 at Reading and 3-47 at Gloucester were not good adverts for our club.

I want to look forward to running rugby on a well-grassed pitch, on a Sunday afternoon.  I accept that the Amlin Cup beckons, but am hoping not to travel to Cornwall, Esher or Coventry for away games.

Come on Sharks. Play attractive, winning rugby and the crowds will come back.

THIS AND THAT, TIMES FIVE

March 22nd, 2010

with Thomas Stanley

A two-point England defeat against an off-colour French side was seen as an improvement.  How much of it was down to who wasn’t selected?  The Summer tour Down Under will reveal:  no slow ball, slugging it out on Antipodean pitches. “Too little, too late” is my verdict on Johnson’s England.  As for the others?  Wales still declining, Irish getting older, Scotland = one win and all’s well, Italy myopic, France best of the bunch.  There are three, maybe four, teams in the Southern Hemisphere who can beat any of the Euros.

I’m glad the Wonderboy finally started (and scored a try) but whatever happened to, “If I don’t get regular starts at scrum half in the next two years, I’ll come back to the Sharks”? The Edgeley management was right all along. Foden at fifteen.

PSA raids again!  Falcons’ giant prop Carl Hayman is to join Toulon, following the J.Wilkinson & T.May trail from Kingston Park to the Mediterranean coast.  Another Premiership captain heading thataway. (Remember Juan?) Any chance of the Haymen going househunting on April 23rd?

Centre point? Against Wasps, Nick Macleod and Jonny Kennedy were (I reckon) the fourteenth pairing to start at 12 and 13 this season.  Seems we have a problem there.

Apparently, the Little Value Cup Final between Gloucester and Northampton was very entertaining.  The Sharks’ critics made much of the fact that Jim Mallinder and Bryan Redpath were in charge, up against each other.  Some suggestion that one or both should still be with us.  Move on!  Mallinder was always England bound (and should take the top post in May, IMHO). If PSA hadn’t come in, we’d never have seen Chabal, Bruno, etc…..  ‘Brush’ was, apparently, beyond budget at the time.  Not too long ago, there were whispers at Kingsholm that his days were numbered. After all, we know that great players don’t make the best coaches……..

Well done, both!  The Saints victory (assuming that they finish high up if not GP champions) could make seventh spot in the Premiership a matter of Heineken qualification. Let’s focus!

LUCKY SEVEN?

March 15th, 2010

Sale Sharks take the field for the rearranged game on Friday 19th March against Wasps at the start of a seven game run which will determine the club’s destiny.

The fixture list reads: Wasps (H), Irish (A), Worcester (H), Saracens (H), Bath (A), Newcastle (H), Quins (A).

Tait, Cueto and Peel are back after the weekend.

What are the chances?

v. Wasps:  the visitors have lost the last five at EP, came to grief at Leeds, and weren’t that impressive on Valentines’ Day. Will they have Cipriani or Walder at 10? Are their wings (Sackey, Varndell, Lemi) going to be nullified by the narrow pitch? The back row, which includes Betsen and Ward-Smith (that’s two blokes, not three) is strong.

v. Irish: Sharks have a mixed record at Reading,  Irish have under achieved. Sharks could fancy their chances of getting something here.

v. Worcester: no doubt this will be dubbed the ‘relegation eight pointer’.  Sky will be there, hovering over a carcass, maybe?

v. Saracens: Have the Sarries been rumbled? Can they score tries? Can Sharks?

v. Bath: only one win at The Wreck (2006) since 1997 and 1998 when Paul Smith & Jos Bax. were playing. Bad memories.

v. Newcastle.  Hayman is so vital to their cause – he’s definitely ‘the boss’. Lost at Worcester. Target – the ‘lap of honour’ with survival secured.

v. Quins.  We don’t want to be going there needing something. John Kingston will be firing up his troops.

So where are the wins?

Wasps, Worcester, Sarries, Newcastle. Bonus point at Irish, maybe even a draw!

How did this happen?

We always knew it would be a season of rebuilding, but since New Year’s Day, there have been two Heineken Cup defeats against Cardiff (not that impressive, we were ahead on the try count ’till late) and Toulouse (who didn’t have it all their own way!).  Then, two LV= defeats, not with full teams, especially at Bath where a couple of Oxford University students were drafted in. At Wasps, we were in contention and felt aggrieved by the forward pass in the buildup to their only try.

The train fell off the rails against Leeds and Gloucester.  It got back during the second half against the Saints. Eight successive defeats don’t look pretty.  Other clubs have chosen their moments to shine. Opinion:  Newcastle aren’t out of the mire, Leeds have ‘dog’ in abundance but is that it? Worcester have no international returnees – can they change their fortunes?

That’s without studying the fixture lists, which should favour the Sharks.

Injuries, Attitude & Team selection

Not our department – we have to leave them to the paid professionals. Sale Sharks were in lowly positions between 1999 and 2001 : patience is a virtue.  We can only hope that the players, particularly the backs, will be allowed some freedom of expression and give the opposition something to think about.  Otherwise, it’ll be worse than watching England.

OH CALCUTTA!

March 15th, 2010

writes Thomas Stanley

Oh dear, oh dear……never in the cause of sport was such there such a dreadful spectacle.  Scotland v. England – truly the bore draw.

Might as well start with the front rows and the ref.  Good idea of the BBC to have a clock timing it. Each scrum was two minutes or more being re-set.  Indecisive referee Marius Jonker had too much patience. Time for diplomacy to stop – just ‘ping’ someone and get quick ball going. Or get someone on who can bind and push at the right time.The RL lads must have been having a right laugh – they don’t even bother pretending!

Slow, slow, slow, slow slow – nae chance of a quickstep with Scotland and England. The homers couldn’t give it a Highland fling, and Johnno’s lot -well, apparently they’re improving.  Mmm. It really is time for “Go, Jonny, go go go”.  If you were wearing the England 12 or 11 shirt, there was little chance of making an impact – the gap between them and their sterile playmaker was too great.  So expect Flood or ‘Tintin’ Geraghty to appear: Andy “Goode with Food” is a South African Shark now.

“Tryless, Witless and Clueless” – said the Sunday Thunderer. Got to agree – this isn’t an outfit who are going to threaten anybody at the next World Cup.  Time to give a start to the Northampton Saints scrum half Ben Foden at his best position – fullback.


HAPPY BIRTHDAY, H.Q.!

February 2nd, 2010

says Thomas Stanley

On January 15th, 1910, England beat Wales 11-6 in front of a 20,000 crowd at the new international venue.  It was nicknamed the ‘cabbage patch’ because it had been the Mann family’s market gardening land before RFU Committee man Billy Williams earmarked it for the purpose which it still fulfils.

The ten-and-a quarter acre site cost £5,572 12s. 6d.   Harlequins v. Richmond was the first game played there on 2nd October 1909. It was the Quins’ home ground for many a year.

The capacity is now 82,000, fully enclosed, seated and covered but too far from a railway station!

Historians will name six ‘Great’ Moments, which don’t include the 1991 World Cup Final when England changed a winning formula and lost to Australia. They are:

1925: First player ever sent off in a Test match: NZ lock Cyril Brownlie. The efforts of the Prince of Wales couldn’t engineer his return after half time. The All Blacks still won 17-11.

1936: England’s first ever win over New Zealand 13-0. The Russian Prince Alexander Obolensky scored two tries. 73,000 in the crowd.

1965: Longest run for a try (80 yards), by Andy Hancock (Northampton) to make it England 3, Scotland 3.

1982: Streaker Erica Roe diverted the England team’s attention at half time, with Steve Smith telling Bill Beaumont that, “Some bird’s got your ar*e” on her chest…..”

1991: Grand Slam for England. England baulked Scotland’s hopes by beating France 21-19, for whom someone called St.Andre scored another length-of-the-field try.

1999: Greatest ever game at Twickenham? World Cup semi final, with France reversing a 10-24 half time deficit to win 43-31.  Saw it on TV but would have loved to have been there.

Although Sale FC had a Middlesex Sevens win there in 1936 (the days of Hal Sever et al), in the modern era, a team bearing the Sale name has graced the hallowed turf four times. I’ve seen all four.

1997: Pilkington Cup Final, dreadful game in the drizzle. Lost 3-9 to Leicester. Seriously talking anti-climax here.

2004: Powergen Cup Final. Superb game, lost 33-37 to Newcastle Falcons. Salmon leap by ex-Shark Joe Shaw for a try.

2004: Zurich Playoff, lost 27-48 to Leicester Tigers with the last few players available standing in the white shirts. Ten tries in the game.

2006: Triumph at last (raining again!) and Sale Sharks are the first Guinness Premiership champions to have led the table as well. 45-20 against Leicester Tigers.  Definitely worth keeping the DVD.

“A grand day out”………

When next, Kingsley and the boys?

THE ANNUAL JUDGEMENT WEEKEND

January 26th, 2010

Thomas Stanley musing…………..

The distinguished, retired Daily Mail Rugby Correspondent Peter Jackson, who now writes for ERC on their website, has christened the Pool 6 weekend of European club rugby just that…..and, as usual, he’s not wrong!

But first, the prologue: can anybody tell me what a ‘Team Logistics & Player Appearance Manager’ does for a living? I ask because the Ospreys have someone called Dani Delamere who holds that grandiose title.  Yes, the one who incurred the wrath of referee Lewis when ‘The Hairsprays’ briefly had 16 men on the pitch. As I write, it’s still sub judice at ERC’s Irish Headquarters, so we await the outcome.

One of the Ospreys’ sixteen was impressive centre Andrew Bishop (24), brother of Sale Sharks’ David. He played very well – now in his fifth season at the Liberty Stadium; 81 + 33 appearances at the time of writing (5 tries).  Also a member of the Welsh squad, for whom he has eight caps, the first being against Canada – up to now, ‘The Fridge’s’ only game.  I’d like to have added “in the red shirt” but they played in yellow.

Otherwise, quarter final wise, the dust has settled and all the talk is about Northampton being the only English side left, and they scraped in!  Why?

Let’s take a rugby tour of Europe.  The Italian clubs may pull off the rare surprise, but teams play them looking to score four tries. Wales, Scotland and Ireland are franchises. So, of the ‘major’ powers, just France and England have clubs, and the playing field isn’t even between them!

The French have done really well this time round.  Their salary cap is much higher than the Premiership clubs, and a lot of them don’t spend money on ground improvements. The Euro has been strong, and surely they’re inspired by the thought of appearing at their National Stadium in the Final.

The allegation against the Guinness Premiership is that the spectre of relegation leads to over physical, hard fought games. The pattern of play is not helped by the dull example set by the underperforming England team.  Kicking didn’t come to Malone or Geraghty’s rescue last weekend, whilst a certain nerveless  Toulon number ten slotted over six out of six on the Mediterranean coast.

We don’t have the money, and apparently we need to learn how to play the European game, whilst ‘managing’ the referees. With London Irish, Leicester Tigers and Saracens not qualifying, there’s a new problem afoot. Definitely time for a ‘Think Tank’.

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION?

January 19th, 2010

asks Thomas Stanley

Just some quick thoughts – or better still, an invitation to those who travelled to Cardiff.  There’s a clamour, not only within Rugby Union, but in soccer too, for new stadia.  Moving to a new ground is the cure for all ills, they say. Are we sure?

Cardiff City Stadium had plenty of space – unfortunately, too much of it in the seats. Not even ten thousand taken in a 26000 capacity ground. Hard to whip up an atmosphere, no matter how high the level of graft and grunt on the turf. Facilities to suit fans – big barns of bars, a musical group on the pop side and, I believe, all mod cons for the corporate fortunate.

The glory of Cardiff has always been the proximity of the shops (one way) and the stadia (the other) from watering holes like The Angel and The Old Arcade. Has the trek along Sloper Road, or the train to Ninian Park Station,  taken the gloss away?

Redevelop Edgeley or find a new place for the Councils that won’t spend money on development? Love it or no, EP is central, traditional, has local pubs and/or the Shark Tank (tent on the car park), and is very close to the station and car parks. Perhaps all it needs is modernising and expanding down the Vernon/ DLA Piper side. How much longer before we stop sitting people in an open end?

The debate continues.

THE GUESSING GAME

January 19th, 2010

Thomas Stanley puts his neck on the block…………

Just Round 6 of the Heineken and Amlin Challenge Cups left to play, and nobody can be sure of how the quarter final lineups are going to pan out.  Toulouse’s eccentric coach Guy Noves, asked if a losing bonus point at Edgeley Park would be enough, is reported to have replied that it hadn’t entered his thinking. “You won’t believe me, but I never look at the standings,” he said. “I only look at my team, our matches so far. I don’t calculate. I leave that to those who are far from the field because they don’t realise what it takes to get there.”

In Manchester on a grey Tuesday morning, I feel “far enough from the field”  to at least have a go! Before the mighty Sharks trot out behind Deano at 2.58 p.m. next Sunday, all other Heineken games, bar the one at The Stoop, will have been played.  KJ & Co. will know what has to be done. I believe that Sale Sharks may send Monsieur Noves home with his point, but they will have picked up four themselves.

In Limerick on Friday, it could be “Deja vu” and another Munster Mash.  Saints are hoping to qualify – I think they’ll miss out.  Biarritz have already won Pool 2 (”Maggie, Maggie, Maggie – In, In, In !”).  Pool Three is a huge area of unpredictability. I see Tigers winning in Swansea, but Ospreys will pick up a bonus point.  Clermont will get a ‘five pointer’ at Viadana, but Tigers, level on points with les Auvergnois, will take top spot on tries.

Pool 4 is the ‘Weakest Link’. It’s quite possible that Stade and Ulster, the away teams, will both lose but the pink shirted artisans will top their Pool with a measly 17 points. Cardiff can still win at The Stoop, but need four tries to get past the Sharks for runners up spot. Irish have had to move their match against Leinster to Twickenham because Reading FC beat Liverpool in the FA Cup, making the Mad Jet Ski unavailable. Irish won a bruising, eye threatening encounter at the Royal Dublin Showground and after their second half  lapse against the Scarlets last Sunday, will be ‘up for it’ against the holders. Leinster to lose but pick up a losing bonus point?

My speculation leaves the six Pool winners as: Munster (24 pts), Biarritz (22), Tigers (21), Stade Francais (17), Toulouse (20) and Leinster (21).  My highest scoring runners up are Clermont Auvergne (21) and London Irish (19).  This would set up a possible Quarter Final lineup:

Munster v. London Irish, Biarritz v. Clermont Auvergne, Leicester Tigers v. Stade Francais, Leinster v. Toulouse.

With fingers crossed, I nominate Northampton Saints (18 pts.), Sale Sharks (17) and Ulster (13 – better tries scored than Edinburgh) as the next runners-up who take seeds 5,6 and 7 in the Amlin Cup quarters.

Prepare for: Connacht v. Toulon, Wasps v. Ulster, Newcastle Falcons v. Sale Sharks, Leeds Carnegie v. Northampton Saints.  No Sarries, you’ll notice : try scorers prosper!

Matches to be played second weekend of April, which, in the case of the Amlin Cup (as I’m sure you remember) starts on Thursday!

And no laughing if I’m hopelessly wrong. At least I had a go!

Latest odds: Munster 11/4, Leinster 4/1, Toulouse 5/1, Biarritz 13/2, Clermont 13/2, Stade 8/1, Irish 12/1.

NOTHING BETTER TO DO

January 12th, 2010

Thomas Stanley hasn’t……….

The enforced period of inactivity in early January 2010 left this Sharks fan with two alternatives to the inevitable demands to visit John Lewis, or decorate that spare bedroom:  watch whatever rugby has survived (whichever teams are involved) or buy every rugby paper on the stands.

So: Leicester Tigers v. Wycombe Wasps it was (Cheetahs versus New Cheetahs).  Wonder if it helps to have a Caterpillar shovelling firm as your sponsor when those piles of snow have to go?  I don’t think I was the only temporary ‘ Tigers’ Fan for a Day’ in the North West watching in armchair comfort. How would the Pests’ front row cope with Dan Cole, the bright young thing at number 3 for the Tiggers? The 1,2,3 with the worst stats against the best?  The club so worried about the risk of their forwards drowning two months ago? The club which (seemingly regularly) played with uncontested scrums in their ‘Race to Glory’ days?

Well, they got smashed, under the watchful eye of French referee Romain Poite, with Mr.Payne seeing yellow. I seem to remember Philippe talking about officials from his country rewarding the forwards going forwards. Lovely rumbles, you Tigers!

So next day I slithered out and bought the Sunday Times and Rugby Times. Starting with the  ‘Sunday Thunderer’, three pages of Rugby, the first from Stephen Jones. His verdict on the events of Welford Road? “Elemental forces were let loose yesterday and they were unstoppable……..When the scrums came, so did the smashing, and Leicester’s scrum and all-round ebullience carried them to a bonus point victory.…….Roman Poite, proudly hailing from the scrummaging nation that is France, took Wasps to the cleaners with his rulings in the scrum. “   Brilliant.

“Rugby must return to the painful days of jolly ruckers,” Mr.J also opines.  Cue further articles.  Page two featured the Gollum-haunted experiences of  Brian Moore.  We’ll leave him there, with respect.  Onto the third page – you’ve been wondering when Stuart Barnes would appear, haven’t you?

Sky’s Bath-loving fount of all knowledge pushes Chris Ashton for this week’s England squad announcement…”Must be given his chance to shine against Wales before time runs out…”  That puts Mark Cueto at 11, where he doesn’t belong. Someone, somewhere – Mr.Barnes or someone in his trust – has ‘goofed’  big time on page 12.  The Casualty List – still missing from the Autumn internationals – Andrew Sheridan (prop, Bath).  Yes – incredible – read that again!   Further down:  New Injuries – Jon Golding (prop, Newcastle). Correct.   Named at number one in Mr.Barnes’s England XV for the opener against Wales?  Why, Jon Golding (Newcastle)…….

“Rugby Times” is a colourful, glossy read priced at £1.70.  Worth the 20p. more than “The Rugby Paper” with plenty of ‘bits and pieces’ at which to pick.   Andy Vilk the IT Man reporting from Italy on the Super 10.  Nice lad, shame he preferred Sevens to Fifteens. Ross Heppenstall expecting James Gaskell to be “in contention for a shock Six Nations call-up if, as expected, he is named in England’s Elite Player Squad.” I actually hope not, just yet.  Let Courtney Lawes have a go first.  Let Steve Borthwick and Simon Shaw drop out to bus pass territory naturally. Jamma’s time will come.

Editor Jon Newcombe puts forward the widely-held view that Bath “cannot indefinitely act as apologists for the sub-standard facilities they are able to offer at a ground unsuitable for professional rugby.“  He also reports that Coventry RFC boss Phil Maynard “fumes” over Agent Behaviour.  I believe that players’ agents are beginning to cause the same trouble as they do in soccer.  Think Eifion the Fridge here.

Then Millwall football fan Neil Fissler (The Man in The Loop, who ‘knows too much’) cleverly steps off the bandwagon which has Worcester allegedly trying to sign Welsh players. “Warriors look to have failed in a bold bid to lure them to Sixways,” he writes. Stephen Jones (Llanelli Scarlets) and Dwayne Peel (Sale Sharks) are mentioned here.  Three days later, someone else added James Hook to the list.  Careful, Fridge’s agent will be latching onto the story next!  And NF says Nikki Walker (Ospreys) may be on KJ’s shopping list.

Neale Harvey has centre spread, entitled, “Rugby to join Millionaire’s Row?”  Among the changes to the game that he suggests may happen in the next ten years, are:  increasing influence of agents (they won’t give up, will they!), a Rugby TV Channel, A Euro League (let football try it first, I say), and a World Club Cup.  Surely that idea would be difficult, when Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Scotland, Wales and Ireland have moved into franchises and regional teams?  Are Sale Sharks to evolve into a North Western conglomerate, totally removed from the club concept so dear to the hearts of the game’s supporters?  Could the ‘North Western Force’ – OK, the ‘Cheshire Cats’ – based at a stadium near Sandbach attract a following looking for flights, hotel deals and watering holes on their travels? Will it be quite the same?

Far fetched?  The Celtic Crusaders RL will be playing Super League at Wrexham in 2010.  Test cricket umpires can have their decisions officially challenged, using ‘Hawkeye’ or ‘The Snickometer’.  Anything could happen before 2020. Hurry up, thaw – I’d rather be watching rugby. All this reading’s too much for me.

EVEN (SAINT) STEPHENS

December 22nd, 2009

writes Thomas Stanley

Good King Kingsley once looked out, On the feast of Stephen…”

As Sale Sharks head for Leicester, ready to face the Tigers on the 27th, it’s actually the season’s half-way point, unless the club has success in the LV=, Heineken or Amlin Cups.  One out of three would be welcome, two would be special.

We stand at the crossroads of mass Roast Turkey consumption and the consequent search for sixpence in our Figgy Duff, so time for a quick “Half Term Report”. The Sharks have achieved four wins in their last five games and, after a difficult start, stand  at Christmas 2009 with the record: Played 15, Won 7, Drawn 1, Lost 7. It’s so even, as are the points: For 280, Against 285.

Like the salt on the motorways during the snowy spell, the Sharks have been ’spreading it around’. 36 players have played for the first team.  Seventeen of them have scored a try or more.  The whitewash has been crossed on 25 occasions – and even there, the scoreboard reads, “Forwards 13, Backs 12.”  Nineteen of the 25 have been converted – even I can calculate that’s 76%. A further 117 points have come from 37 penalties and two drop goals.

So – 16 games to go, plus any extras from Cup success. Nine at home, seven away – that could be crucial. Happy Christmas, well done so far, no reason why things won’t get better. Players and coaches are working together and the future – like that star over Bethlehem – is bright.

Of that I’m positive.