T he Shar ks f ell away at t he end of last season, but S t ephen Jones ex pect s them t o get their t eeth int o the t op six this time aroundÉ
IIN CASE you live within striking distance of Salford and are contemplating the purchase of a Sale Sharks season ticket, here are three tingling prospects to tilt you in their direction – and our advice comes at no charge to the club.
Chris Ashton is way more than one of the most controversial and highly-publicised players in the game. He’s become a brilliant finisher, all-round footballer and such a dispenser of glamour that his omission from the England team on any grounds at all had become ridiculous. Now he’s back playing in England, his passage to the national team should be a formality. And how exciting for Sale that he is back in the North.
Then you have Tom Curry and Faf de Klerk, who were on opposite sides during England’s June Test series in South Africa. Curry has only recently left his teens and it is preposterously early to make any confident predictions, but his effective play in all three matches on that tour was really something.
England have been without a true openside flanker since time immemorial, or rather since the eras of Peter Winterbottom and Neil Back. Curry might, just might, reinstate the principle of playing true opensides.
The bombshell that is de Klerk is something else. In South Africa he was sensational, confirming the electric impression he has made on Sale followers. The speed of
Full of cheer
A young fan enjoys the action at AJ Bell Stadium
his actions and thought processes were almost beyond comprehension.
He was sharp, alert, he can kick and pass miles off balance, he can pull off extraordinary plays and yet perform the basics at scrum-half quite beautifully as well. At present he would be my choice as the best player in the sport.
Sale need such men. Other clubs have their campaigns to conduct while Sale have something more than that; they have their crusade. Clubs with a huge rugby catchment area – Bath, Bristol, Exeter, Gloucester, Leicester, Northampton – can in times of trouble bank on their local resources for support, commerce, ticket sales and loyalty.
Sale have around them the hinterland of Manchester – a vast and marvellous city, but a city in thrall to football. It must be said that Sale have an audience. They reckon there were 20,000 Sale supporters in Twickenham for the 1997 Pilkington Cup final when they lost to Leicester; there was another huge gathering on that glory day in 2006 when Sale battered Leicester 45-20 to lift the Premiership trophy, giving one of the most devastating performances that the final had ever seen, with Charlie Hodgson, Jason Robinson and an heroic pack reducing Leicester to matchwood.
But without the rock-solid weekly commitment available in the big rugby towns, Sale always have to battle. “We have to win most of our games but also have to play in an attractive style,” said Philippe Saint-André, who was in charge for that glory day. “Other clubs can win 6-0 in a very poor game and everyone is happy but we cannot be like that.”
Sale are bidding for large numbers of the uncommitted supporters, to grab them and bind them into the weekly throng. There are options in Manchester – football, cricket, culture, socialising, the internet, walks, the armchair and more football. They tell me that a few diehards still go along to watch rugby league, a sport which has apparently disappeared from the radar anywhere south of Watford Gap Services.
We must remember that Sale are no pop-up child of the Premiership years because their history has been magnificent. They left their Heywood Road ground in 2003 to play in Stockport, and from then it was on to Salford. But they had almost reached a century of games at the grand old ground; Heywood Road is still their spiritual home and where Fran Cotton and Steve Smith, ex-England giants, were kings of the North. It is where Paul Turner, as coach and player, piloted the team through great days in the immediate aftermath of the switch to professionalism, a time when Sale could have been expected to suffer more than most with their low capacity. There was a time when they could beat anyone.
When Saint-André was there, for one blessed season they triumphed. What happened after that? Those tracing the ups and downs of the great club often forget that Saint-André was absolutely murdered by a brutal succession of injuries in the next two seasons just when he and Brian Kennedy, a loyal owner for so long, were contemplating turning their triumph into a hegemony.
Since those years and lately under the charge of Steve Diamond – and now with co-owner Simon Orange, who has made a lively start, as the driving force off the field – Sale are battling on still, refusing to bow the knee to clubs with all the advantages, even when they have come perilously close to relegation.
It has been a magnificent fight and, to the everlasting credit of the club, it is one they have often fought with the warriors developed in their own
academy system, which turns out excellence on a regular basis.
At the end of last season, Sale disappointed themselves by losing heavily to Leicester in the final game of the season, in front of 10,000 at the AJ Bell Stadium. Had they won that game they would have been in the top six and therefore would be playing in the European Champions Cup this season.
However, there are grounds for believing that Sale are once again on the march, are developing the support into a through-thick-and-thin gathering. They are also blending the home-grown with judicious recruitment of hard-nosed players who fit the concrete-nosed philosophy of Diamond quite perfectly.
They have lost Mike Haley and Will Addison, who are eligible to play for Ireland and have departed for Munster and Ulster respectively. This is a crying shame and you hope for the sake of Haley, a brilliant player on his day, that the move does not come back to haunt him because the England full-back position is by no means settled. In fact, it is something of a mess.
Yet consider Sale’s other key players. Jono Ross is captain this season after bringing powerhouse play to the flank last term. They have a tough old pack, which last season was probably lacking a couple of really meaty men, but with Joe Jones – once the most promising young prop in Wales – arriving in his mid-20s to join fellow Welshman WillGriff John up front, Sale are unlikely to be beasted in Salford this season.
Add in the backs, with the mercurial James O’Connor hopefully inspiring Ashton, and the two outstanding James brothers, Luke and Sam, and de Klerk attacking on the fringes, and you have a team that can play in many styles.
But arguably the best signing for the new season and possibly one of the most significant in the Premiership is that of South African Rohan Janse van Rensburg. The giant centre has already been effective for Sale on a short-term contract but now he is back full-time and, unless he attracts the attention of the South Africa selectors, his formidable presence in midfield could be a significant factor in taking Sale into the six European qualifying spots at the end of the season just beginning.
Sale always have to be flat out just to keep level with the others. But to make so much of themselves is a triumph; you admire the toughness, the commercial energies and the sheer, bloody-minded resistance that exists on and around the field of play and does tribute to one of England’s oldest clubs.
Diamond is some character. He had a stint in the coaching role alongside Jim Mallinder, was so highly rated that he was appointed by Saracens to take charge, but this was in an era when the club’s recruiting was haphazard.
You sense that his growling, sometimes even menacing, presence sets the tone for the whole operation. But also that this season, Sale have more than toughness and passion for the jersey at their disposal.
They have the remarkable Ashton, the meteoric Curry, the dazzling de Klerk and a host of significant back-up talent. They also, praise me, have a new road link so to watch rugby at the AJ Bell is no longer akin in terms of travel endurance to climbing Everest.
Sale Sharks still have a long way to climb, but they are creating something well worth watching.
Double vision Sale’s twins Ben and Tom Curry
Back for good Rohan Janse van RensburgEver-present Faf de Klerk started every league game for Sale last season