It is a little early in the season to be talking of "do or die" matches, but if storm-tossed Sale sink like a stone against London Irish in Salford tonight, it may be a very long time before they come up for air. Steve Diamond, back in charge of team matters after this week's demotion of Bryan Redpath from rugby director to head coach, is determined to be off the bottom of the Premiership table by Christmas. That process starts here.
Most of the northerners' big guns will be present and correct: the England wing Mark Cueto, the All Black centre Sam Tuitupou, the Scotland forwards Richie Gray and Richie Vernon, the Wales No 8 Andy Powell, some bloke called Cipriani at outside-half. But Sale are as green as the grass in the front row, where the youngsters Ross Harrison and Tommy Taylor are paired together, and judging by the London Irish set-piece performance against Harlequins last weekend, this will be no picnic for them.
The absence of the injured Jonathan Joseph, a high-class addition to England's back line, will hurt the Exiles, but by restoring a wing as potent as Marland Yarde to the starting combination they will lose nothing in terms of collective pace. "This is a big test of how far we have come this season," said their rugby director, Brian Smith. "We played some great rugby last weekend and were disappointed not to see it through.
Harlequins, who beat the Exiles with a highly debatable late try five days ago, were celebrating more good news yesterday after securing the services of their prize asset, the New Zealand stand-off Nick Evans, on a three-year contract extension. Pursued by clubs in France and Japan, the 32-year-old goal-kicking playmaker considered his options before effectively deciding to see out his career at the Stoop.
"The Premiership wants the best players and Nick is one of the very best," said the English champions' boss, Conor O'Shea. "While I know one of the main reasons he's staying revolves around his family, ultimately it is about his ambition to achieve things with this club. We've started something here and he wants to see it through."