Sale Sharks

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

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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

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