London Welsh’s great Premiership adventure continues on Friday night with a trip to the new Salford City Stadium to face Sale Sharks. Our one-point win at home to Exeter on Sunday afternoon has moved us up to the dizzy heights of ninth in the table, two places ahead of our hosts, who are one of three teams - along with Worcester and London Irish - still looking for their first win of the season.
Grin when you're winning! Jon Mills - Former owner of the most famous tooth in Premiership Rugby
It’s no secret that most rugby journalists and supporters - including a fair few of our own, if we’re honest - expected the Welsh to be relegated at the end of this season without a single win to our name, so Sunday’s win has certainly ruffled a few feathers amongst the elite. It’s fair to say that things won’t get any easier: it would be churlish to suggest that Exeter underestimated us, particularly given their stunning achievements in upsetting the establishment over the last two years, but you can be sure that nobody will take us lightly now. But all of a sudden, the pressure is on the Sharks on Friday. It should be pointed out that their fixtures have been almost as demanding as ours with games against three of last season’s top five clubs - like us, they’ve hosted Exeter and visited Harlequins, while they also entertained Saracens in round two. But Sale themselves finished sixth last year, qualifying for the Heineken Cup for the first time since 2009-10, and they’ve been tipped by many pundits to improve on that showing this season, possibly even to break into the top four for the first time since they were crowned Champions in 2005-06. They’ve added quality rather than quantity to a squad which already included Welsh internationals Dwayne Peel and Andy Powell, Scotland flanker Richie Vernon, England Saxons James Gaskell and Dave Seymour, as well as last year’s top try-scorer in the Premiership, full-back Rob Miller. In the front-row, Andrew Sheridan has swapped Greater Manchester for the French Riviera with Eifion Lewis-Roberts moving in the opposite direction, to be joined by Australian full-back Cameron Shepherd, the outstanding Scotland lock, Richie Gray, and mercurial fly-half, Danny Cipriani. Among the players released by the Sharks over the summer was Fijian lock Wame Lewaravu, who became a cult hero during his two years at ODP, during which time he scored six tries in 33 appearances (25 starts).
Andy Powell One of the two Welsh Grand Slam winners at Sale Sharks
We have a couple of faces in our squad who will be familiar to the home supporters on Friday. Hooker Neil Briggs made 78 league appearances (50 starts) in eight years at Edgeley Park, scoring four tries, all of them in a nine-game spell during the 2008-09 season, before requesting a release from his contract twelve months ago to move to Bourgoin, in the French Pro D12. Kingsley Jones, meanwhile, who is listed on our official website as a ‘Technical Adviser’, enjoyed seven years at Sale, firstly as forwards coach under Philippe Saint-Andre and, after the Frenchman’s departure in 2009, as Head Coach. He took on the role of Director of Rugby twelve months later, as former All Black Mike Brewer joined as Head Coach, but left within weeks of the return of Steve Diamond as ‘Executive Director of Sport’ following Brewer’s dismissal just three months into the season. Diamond had played almost 300 first-class games for the club, and, alongside former teammate Jim Mallinder, had delivered the club’s first piece of silverware when they defeated Pontypridd 25-22 in the final of the Parker Pen Shield (currently the Amlin Challenge Cup) at the Kassam Stadium in 2002.
After three rounds of fixtures, Sale have the worst attacking record in the Premiership, having scored just 36 points and two tries, although while our points against (102) looks healthier than both London Irish (123) and the Sharks (103) we have conceded 14 tries to their eleven. Danny Cipriani has kicked 20 of Sale’s points, landing six penalties from six and one of two conversions, while former Cardiff fly-half Nick Macleod currently has a 100% strike rate, albeit just two penalties from two. For Welsh, Gordon Ross’s strike rate is just 55.56% (five from nine); only Exeter’s Ignacio Mieres, with 11 from 16, has missed more kicks at goal this season, but his strike rate is still higher, at 68.75%. Friday’s referee is Greg Garner, who has officiated in the two highest-scoring Premiership games so far this season; Harlequins’ 42-40 win over Wasps on the opening weekend, and London Irish’s 31-40 defeat at home to Gloucester a week later. He was also the man in the middle for the first leg of our Championship play-off final at the Mennaye in May.
Cipriani - high profile fly half with a controversial past. Sounds familiar?
We have only played Sale once in the history of league rugby, a 16-9 defeat in January 1989, in front of a season’s-best crowd of 1,500 at Old Deer Park. Sale had been relegated from the top flight at the end of the inaugural league season, along with Coventry, the Midlanders being the only club - so far, at least - to have enjoyed just a single season in the top division. And while Sale were formed in 1861, 24 years before Welsh, our paths didn’t cross until 13th March 1976 for a cup quarter-final at Heywood Road, their home from 1905-2003. Lock Dick Thomas, a Wales ‘B’ cap who had won three Blues for Cambridge in the early-70s, crossed twice to give Welsh a narrow lead, but the home side clinched a 16-14 win with a penalty 13 minutes from time. So, two competitive meetings, two defeats. That’s another little piece of history that needs to be rewritten this weekend.
I suspect their season opening does not tell the whole story any more than ours did. Away wins may come rare to us, but there has to be a first one somewhere. Let's hope their floodlights are tall enough to satisfy the referee.
just for accuracy we played exeter away not at home.
this is our second home game after sarries.
good summary, not sure Kingsley is held in particular high regard as our ex DoR post St Andre but no doubting his coaching abilities. briggsy is a bit of cult hero with a section of the sale fans. very good at kick offs, rucks and always gives 100%.
good luck for the rest of season bar tomorrow and the return game in oxford.
Shame Seb can't make the starting XV to share the kicking duties with/take the pressure off Gordon. Despite Sale's start it ain't gonna be easy & every point will count I'm sure. Good luck to the boys!
This week's The Breakdown (Guardian) looks at the problems at Sale:
The season is not a month old but there has been a coaching casualty. Sale, bottom of the Premiership and looking for their first victory, sacked Steve Scott, who was in charge of the forwards, after a home defeat by London Welsh last Friday.
Tony Hanks also lost his job as the Sharks head coach last March after a heavy defeat at home, which was then Stockport rather than Salford, by the then champions, Saracens. A porous defence was cited as the reason for the change with four matches in the season left.
Sale won two of the four to finish sixth and clinch a place in this season's Heineken Cup and at their media day in August there was quiet confidence they could break into the top four. They had recruited strongly and welcomed the extra width at Salford because it would allow their new outside-half, Danny Cipriani, to launch a wave of attacks.
Four matches into the campaign the mood is far from sanguine. Four defeats, three tries and a solitary bonus point is the return expected of their conquerors last week, London Welsh. With the Exiles winning their last two matches, ensuring they will not be bottom of the table at the end of the opening month, fear of relegation will not be confined to the newly promoted club.
Far from sorting out their defensive problems, Sale have conceded 13 tries, a tally exceeded only by London Welsh, who have scored seven to the Sharks' three. Cipriani rarely enjoyed victory with Melbourne Rebels in his one and a half seasons in the Super 15 and the next two matches are at Bath on Saturday and at home to Leicester six days later.
Sale's tally of three tries is the lowest in the Premiership, two fewer than Saracens, who seem to have winded themselves after blowing away London Irish on the opening weekend of the season, and Bath, which does not point to reckless abandon at the Recreation Ground this weekend.
Cipriani, says the Manchester Evening News, has had precious little ball to exploit. "For now the jury is still out. Sale have been guilty of failing at most of the fundamental basics – clean handling, efficient off-loading, powerful scrummaging, maintaining discipline, accurate kicking and passing with intent…Sale's lightweight pack has been out-bullied, out-thought and out-fought, hence the decision to remove Scott."
Steve Diamond, Sale's chief executive, will coach the forwards until a successor for Scott is found but the Sharks hardly beefed up in the summer when they lost Andrew Sheridan. The Scotland second-row Richie Gray was the headline signing but he is a forward renowned for his work in the loose rather than the tight.
Scott's dismissal came a few weeks before the start of the Heineken Cup but, having placed so much importance in qualifying for that tournament, Diamond can hardly have it as priority now. Sale are in a testing, if not the toughest pool; Toulon, Sheridan's new home, are the Top 14 leaders with six wins out of six and Montpellier have beaten Clermont Auvergne. Cardiff Blues make up the quartet, back at the Arms Park but with success looking at arm's length.
Since Philippe Saint-André resigned as director of rugby in 2008, two years after the club won the Premiership for the first time, Sale have reacted to relative failure by making changes: Kingsley Jones, Mike Brewer and Hanks all departed after little time to prove themselves and Jason Robinson spent one season as head coach: Brewer and Hanks spent less than a year in position and Pete Anglesea spent five months as the interim first-team coach from December 2010.
Rugby union is now all about results. The top five clubs in last season's Premiership have the same men in charge: five of the seven below them, none of whom had a 50% record, have a new face at the helm. Wasps and Worcester are the exceptions: the Warriors were never in a relegation scrap on their return to the Premiership while Wasps, flirting with the drop until the final day of the campaign, were in danger of going into administration as they looked to find a buyer.
Wasps, whose fall was more abrupt than Sale's, had also reacted to being overtaken by changing the driver, the unfortunate Hanks one of the victims, but in sticking with David Young as director of rugby, they have retained some stability: they may have won only won of their first four matches but they have harvested nine points and have scored 12 tries, a tally beaten only by Harlequins.
Sale are less patient. They have moved into the Salford City Stadium which, while more modern and a vast improvement on Edgeley Park in terms of facilities, is less accessible. Their two gates this season have both been just under 7,500, a figure they exceeded in seven of their home Premiership fixtures last season; supporters have been caught in traffic jams before and after matches and Sale are working with the local authority to provide shuttle buses and alternative parking.
Sale are the only club in the Premiership in the north of England following Newcastle's relegation last season. If it seemed that the Falcons would quickly return at the expense of the club who replaced them, London Welsh's victories over Exeter and the Sharks have generated a flutter in several boardrooms.
The top four in the Premiership is the same as last season and, if Exeter in that campaign proved a rising force, the other seven rarely rose above the mediocre. If London Welsh win a couple more matches before the end of the year, some will be tempted to follow Sale, even if the evidence of football is that when struggling football clubs change managers in midstream, any positive impact is no more than temporary.
Unfortunately rugby does seem to be going the way of the round ball game and dumping coaching staff after a couple of poor results. Reference to Tony Hanks who had the bad luck to be sacked by Wasps and then Sale at the end of 2010/11 and 2011/12 respectively only to miss out on a job in the Championship having been interviewed for the vacant role at Nottingham.
Wonder where he might end up next? As Shaw Taylor used to say, Keep 'em peeled!
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