Sale feel under pressure to take advantage of Newcastle's ills

With memories fresh of their fight for survival last season the Sharks cannot afford a slow start tonight
Click to follow

It is just a little early to take a "now or never" approach to a game of rugby – the new Premiership campaign will not enter the general sporting consciousness until tomorrow, when 70,000 people congregate at Twickenham to watch the London quartet set about each other – but if Sale fail to beat Newcastle in tonight's opening match at Edgeley Park, they will be forced to acknowledge that this could be a long old season. The Tynesiders are travelling light because of injury, and as they rarely make much sense of life on the road even when picking from strength, anything short of a win will leave the hosts in the pit of despond.

Sale are no strangers to this condition, having spent the lion's share of last term worrying themselves sick about relegation, but another outbreak of communal depression might prove terminal. They have a new coach in Mike Brewer, who played a World Cup final as an All Black, and fresh faces in virtually every area of the senior squad, some of whom look suspiciously like juniors. But new does not always equal successful. Should Newcastle eke out a result this evening despite keeping their first-choice half-backs on the bench – both Jimmy Gopperth and Micky Young are some way short of full fitness – there will be an inquest up there in the north-west.

"It's a case of not taking unnecessary risks," explained Alan Tait, the Newcastle coach, when asked about his selection of the former Munster stand-off Jeremy Manning and the inexperienced Chris Pilgrim at scrum-half. "We're going with people who have been training at full intensity and have been involved in all the rugby across the summer. If this was the last month of the season, we might have pitched Jimmy and Micky in and asked them to battle through until they could have a rest, but at this stage we have to manage everyone correctly."

Unfortunately for Sale, their opponents do not have the monopoly on injury hassles. Three of the hosts' international backs – the wing Mark Cueto, the centre Mathew Tait and the stand-off Charlie Hodgson – have yet to find their way off the early casualty list and as a result, only a little over 50 per cent of tonight's squad have played a competitive match for the club.

Even though Friday night rugby has failed to catch on in England – certainly, it is nowhere near as big a hit as the wildly successful model in France, where average gates are fast closing in on those recorded by the country's top-flight football teams – there is no sign of it being abandoned. Fourteen of the 22 Premiership rounds have Friday fixtures built in and that number could easily increase if the new principal broadcasters, ESPN, decide they want more early-weekend fare rather than less.

Fridays are increasingly popular in the Celtic regions; indeed tonight's opening matches in the Magners League – the Glasgow-Leinster game at Firhill and the eagerly-awaited Ulster-Ospreys contest at Ravenhill – are nothing more than the tip of the iceberg. Even the new Italian contingent, Treviso and Aironi, have agreed to shift a number of matches away from their traditional Saturday slots.

On the transfer front, Leicester have taken further action to ease their second-row problems by casting a line into the second tier and hooking the Cornish Pirates lock Ben Gulliver. The one-time Coventry and Plymouth Albion forward is moving to Welford Road on loan while the English champions work out how to cope with the injuries affecting Geoff Parling, Richard Blaze and Louis Deacon.

Bath, meanwhile, have offered a one-year deal to the French seven-a-side specialist Jacques Boussuge, who has been after a contract at the Recreation Ground for several weeks following his departure from Montpellier. The club also confirmed that Lord MacLaurin, the former England and Wales Cricket Board chairman, has joined as a non-executive director, along with two big hitters from the business world, the Merlin Entertainments Group chief executive Nick Varney and the ex-Barclays Capital managing director Chris Coles. Overseas, the former Sale, Wasps and England coach John Mitchell is leaving Australia, where he has headed up the Perth-based Western Force franchise since its launch in 2006, to take up a new set of reins with the Golden Lions in Johannesburg. Richard Graham, a familiar back-room figure at both Bath and Saracens, will run the Western Force show in next year's expanded Super 15 tournament.

In tomorrow's 'Independent': Eight-page guide to the new Premiership season

Comments