Iain Morrison: Why toothless Sharks need to bite back
THE Heineken Cup means different things to different clubs. For Connacht it’s a chance to bloody the nose of a team like Harlequins, as they did to good effect last season.
For the likes of Leinster, Leicester and Toulouse it’s an opportunity to burnish an already glowing reputation. For Clermont and the Ospreys, it’s a chance to add international honours to domestic success; while Edinburgh need a shot at redemption since their current league form looks an awful lot like last season’s horror show.
For the Sale Sharks, the Heineken Cup comes as a blessed relief. The European fortnight gives the Manchester club a chance to step back, draw a deep breath and take stock of their worst ever run in the professional era. Just one point from their opening six matches has left them bottom of the Aviva Premiership, eight points adrift. Their defeat by London Welsh – pre-season certainties for the drop – did nothing to dispel the sense of gloom. This was a twist in the tale not foreseen by any crystal-ball gazers.
Sale finished sixth last season and the club’s twin backers, Brian Kennedy and Ian Blackhurst, dug deep into their pockets over the summer in an effort to shepherd the Sharks back into England’s elite. A new coach was hired (Bryan Redpath), a new 12,000-seat ground was secured (Salford City Stadium) and several high-profile players were signed, with Richie Gray and Danny Cipriani both moving to Manchester during the summer.
It is a little ironic that the last bastion of Premiership rugby in the north of England is owned by, and is home to, a large number of Scots, both on and off the field. Back in 2003-4 there were four northern teams in Premier One (Leeds, Rotherham, Newcastle and Sale). Now there is just one and, if things carry on as they are there could soon be none. So has Edinburgh-born Kennedy been able to put his finger on what is ailing his beloved Sharks?
“I’m not qualified to speak about the highest level of coaching in the game,” says the man with the money. “But this squad has a quality which is not reflected by their current position in the league. Whether this is down to a lack of motivation, the coaching, the leadership at the club or a collection of all three I’m not sure.
“Steve Diamond [Sale’s chief executive] has moved back to working exclusively with the team on coaching and setting out a game plan. It’s all hands to the pump.”
Kennedy confirmed the rumours that have been swilling about for several days. Sale have approached their former coach and player John Mitchell about a possible return to Manchester on a consultancy basis.
While no one disputes the former All Blacks coach’s credentials, he comes with more baggage than a Rolling Stones tour. Mitchell is currently in dispute with the Golden Lions in Johannesburg and suspended from duties. This comes after his previous club, the Western Force, appointed a former judge to investigate players’ complaints about the Kiwi.
Quite what Mitchell’s arrival in Manchester would mean for the current coach Redpath is anyone’s guess, although the former Scotland skipper declared himself unconcerned.
“Whoever comes in, whether it’s John Mitchell or whoever, we’ve got to make sure we embrace the whole thing and turn this whole thing around and not worry about anyone’s ego,” Redpath said last week.
“I’m not an egotistical person. If someone comes in and tells me something is wrong then results tell me I can’t have a huge problem with it. So we can’t hide as long as we’re being honest. Whoever it may be, as long as they come in and add to the group and this whole environment, we’ve got to embrace it and make it work.”
Chief executive Diamond is currently doubling up as forwards coach after showing Steve Scott the door just weeks ago. He may not have been entirely blameless for the Sharks’ toothless displays but it was Diamond, rather than the former Scotland hooker, who landed the club with props who are not natural scrummagers. Alastair Dickinson and the giant Irishman Tony Buckley are all but unstoppable when galloping about the paddock but neither man is known for his work at the coal face and, according to their principle backer, that is the issue. “Fundamentally we need to sort out our front row,” says Kennedy. “If we can do that then we’ll have a chance. It’s as simple as that.”
Surely the Sharks have too much quality to contemplate life in the Championship? “Anyone can get relegated,” comes the response from Kennedy. “Just look at Leeds, Harlequins, Falcons, and even Wasps came close last season.”
Does Kennedy favour the franchise system?
“Every team in the lower half of the table would prefer a franchise system! Look, this has been talked about so often it’s just not worth going over again. There are benefits and disadvantages to the franchise system and it’s up to the RFU to push it forward if that’s what they want.”
One of the potential benefits to a maintaining a fixed geographical spread throughout England would be to alleviate the current agitation over the Heineken Cup. Without the threat of the drop hanging over English clubs, they too could decide on what to prioritise; domestic or Europe.
“I think that if we had a franchise system in place then the current Heineken set-up makes sense,” says Kennedy. “But we operate in a free market system and so our situation doesn’t make any sense. I expect a compromise will be agreed. It’s important to keep representation from Scotland and Italy so quantity is probably the issue here.”
Six weeks into the season is maybe a tad early to be talking relegation, and the smart money is still backing Sale to kick, and it could be this afternoon against Cardiff Blues.
It needs to happen and not just for Kennedy’s peace of mind. Scottish rugby has too much invested in the Manchester club for them to fail.
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Monday 20 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 20 C
Wind Speed: 7 mph
Wind direction: West
Temperature: 8 C to 18 C
Wind Speed: 10 mph
Wind direction: North west