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Sale's Alex Sanderson: 'The anxiety, the irritation, the stress...'

By Liam Heagney
Sale director of rugby Alex Sanderson (Photo by Ryan Hiscott/Getty Images for Sale Sharks)

It was curious earlier this week how the more Sale boss Alex Sanderson insisted he wouldn’t be emotional visiting his old Saracens stomping ground this Saturday, the more he convinced you the opposite would be the case.

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It was January 2021 when the former England forward said his farewells, bringing the curtain down on more than a decade of assistant coaching at the London club that he also represented as a player.

He exited pals for life with Saracens boss Mark McCall. Pals for life too with so many other staff and, of course, the star-studded player group that he helped nurture.

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His connection with Mako Vunipola, for example, stretched back 15 years to when Sanderson came back from a baptism-of-fire stint at Eddie Jones’ Reds to work for the RFU and the England U18s who had the loosehead as part of their age-grade squad.

Saracens have greatly admired what Sanderson has gotten up as the boss man in Manchester, qualifying the Sharks for last year’s Premiership final – which they lost to Sarries – and now returning to London in fourth place looking to seal their ticket to this year’s play-offs against their second place hosts.

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“He’s been great but no surprise to anybody here,” said McCall to RugbyPass. “I have said this before every time we have to meet, Al has got a brilliant rugby brain. A very inspirational coach. Great communicator off the pitch. Great communicator on the field.

“Everyone can see the change he has made at Sale. They are just getting better and better and are going to be a force to be reckoned with for a long time.”

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The now rival coaches remain in regular touch. “Of course, yeah We just talk about life like everyone does when we talk.”

Over to Sanderson and his latest Saracens return. “I haven’t thought about it,” he said when quizzed by RugbyPass about Sale’s visit to StoneX ground where they have yet to win and opposition they haven’t beaten in London since a Vicarage Road tie in 2005/2006, the season their won their sole Premiership title.

“I certainly did in the first year. I haven’t thought about it much this week. I’m sure once I get back that and I see old friends and given the emotion of the game, seeing Billy, Mako, and Faz [Owen Farrell] and those boys who are moving on, that is bound to pull on the emotional heartstrings, it’s bound to for me by way of nostalgia.

“I think I know how I feel about this place and this group and where my heart is, who I am in love with right now is this bunch [Sale]. But going back there I will have to say a few words and get that white noise out of my head early on, take a few breaths, and then get on with the game.”

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Saracens boss McCall has hyped up the George Ford-inspired attack that has clambered Sale up the table with four straight wins. It’s praise the Sharks usually don’t get. “Well I don’t think we have deserved it before the last four games,” reckoned Sanderson.

“Since we have come back after the break we have clearly been a different side in how we have used the ball.

“I don’t think people rate us because over time we haven’t proven that is the kind of style of rugby that we want to play but those who have watched us, and he [McCall] would have watched us in depth over the last three or four games, he will know.

“Those that do their research, those who have watched us closely will see the shift. Good things take a long time, it ain’t going to happen all at once. We have been working on this for quite a long time and that is why I believe it is good.

“But it’s weekends like this that prove greatness and if we are going to be great it is going to be because of the shift that we have made since the Six Nations that is mainly by way of our attack.”

It was after last weekend’s home win over Leicester when a new deal tying Sanderson to Sale until 2027 as their director of rugby was announced. How very different is he in the role compared to the raw ex-Saracens assistant who succeeded Steve Diamond more than three years ago?

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“I’m bald for one,” quipped the now 44-year-old. “I don’t know if that is a sign of age or stress. I don’t believe I have made it as a director of rugby by any stretch. I still have loads to learn, and loads to do. I am more aware of the many hats that a director of rugby has to wear as opposed to a head coach.

“I am more aware of the help that I need if I am going to do a better job of this as well and that has been a process through board meetings, appraisals I have done with the coaches, and the like. I am probably a little easier on myself by way of my standards and I handle curveballs a bit better I feel because that is the nature of the position.

“You are just catching curveballs and rolling with punches a lot of the time. You have the best plan and you can do all the analysis and you can get homework sorted out and get your selection done and you come in on a Monday morning and feel like you have got it buttoned up, you haven’t.

“You just haven’t got it buttoned up, so it’s being able to not let it spike you when things don’t happen. Like the anxiety, the irritation, the stress filtered down through the coaches and the players, that is a skill that is learned.

“I am still not there but I am getting better at that. There are loads of things I feel I have got better at but, like I say, still a long way to go.”

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