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Welsh rugby enveloped in its latest existential crisis

As Wayne Pivac teeters on the edge of finding new gainful employment after a series of disappointing results, the wider-lens story tells of dysfunction and frustration

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'All of them are social animals, they are great craic'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Alex Davidson/Getty Images)

So tickled was Sale boss Alex Sanderson with being confused with big brother Pat the other day that he quickly whipped out his phone to take a snap of the offending magazine description and fire off a WhatsApp to his working-in-the-City sibling.

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With the dawn of the 2022/23 Gallagher Premiership season on the horizon, a line in a printed preview on the Sharks’ new campaign declared ‘in come Pat Sanderson’s new guard’, hence the question from RugbyPass to the director of rugby over whether the soon-to-be 43-year-old coach is often mistaken for his brother who turns 45 on September 6.

“Not much. I once got mistaken as a Pat Sanderson lookalike when I was out with him in Worcester, believe it or not, which he keeps reminding me of. Nowadays not so much,” he quipped before learning about the magazine preview error. “I’ll tell him that. Can I take a picture?”

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Sanderson was the epitome of good health and new-campaign optimism last week while wolfing down a sarnie just minutes before gambolling out the door at Twickenham for the 220-mile schlep back to Manchester following his morning doing the rounds at the official Premiership Rugby launch of a season that starts for Sale with this Friday’s home joust versus Northampton.

The still-rookie boss can’t wait. It was January 2021 when he was parachuted in mid-season after Steve Diamond chucked it in for some family time. That toe-in-the-water few months in charge culminated in a league semi-final appearance but the subsequent first full season for Sanderson at the helm was dented by inconsistency and a sixth-place finish (W12 D3 L9) was the frustrating outcome.

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Plans to do much, much better have now been actioned and he is especially hopeful that the gambit of basing the overhauled Sale squad in Galway for a week last month has delivered the desired adrenaline shot that will get them firing on a more consistent basis. “I was so impressed with the place,” enthused Sanderson about the busman’s holiday in the west of Ireland.

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“I’d been there for a game before but never for a week, never to see how positive everyone is. It’s like they don’t care if it is raining or whatever. They are getting in the sea and it is minus three. Like, it is such a positive place. It was f*** it, we are going to be happy regardless. Really good vibes.”

The off-season upheaval in the Sale roster has been significant under Sanderson. The Diamond era became synonymous with multiple meaty recruits from South Africa, giving the team quite a southern hemisphere influence but that has been diluted.

Out the door have gone Faf de Klerk, Lood de Jager, JP du Preez and Rohan Janse van Rensburg, replaced by an influx of indigenous players, the likes of the box office ‘locals’ George Ford and Jonny Hill and a supporting cast featuring London duo Tom O’Flaherty and Joe Simpson. Kiwi Jason Woodward, who toured South Africa in 2018 with Eddie Jones’ England is also a newbie.

Sanderson likes the altered feel of the place, believing it now adds greater credence to his belief that Sale are a beacon for the north of England and everything that is great about the region. “You are right, four big South Africans going away for their reasons, for the right reasons,” he said, embracing the opportunity to outline how the lie of the land at Carrington has changed over the summer months.

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“Look, however professional, however committed they are, there has surely got to be something in the sub-conscious, they have got one eye over the shoulder about going home towards the back-end and that makes them a bit more difficult to manage,” he began regarding the SA exodus that precipitated his squad’s change in dynamic.

“You have certainly got three players who have come in and are adding energy, a belief, an excitement, a buzz. One of them, Tom O’Flaherty, has proven to be brilliant on the field and is perhaps one of the most underrated wingers in the Premiership, he is a brilliant player.

“All of them are social animals. It’s not that they hope they have fitted in, they are adding to the environment. They are great craic and getting away gave them that gateway, that opportunity to open up. That is what it is about, getting away. But I was surprised with how well they were received.

“How intent they were in entrenching themselves in the squad, getting up and singing and having the craic and we actually haven’t seen the best of them on the field yet – I’m talking about Jonny and George.

“We have got one of the best fly-halves in his prime in George and Jonny has shown he is probably reaching his peak as well, so we will lose nothing in terms of performance. We needed a bit of experience with Joe and Jason and they give us that. We are really happy with them two as well and they are contributing a lot.

“We have still got a relatively large contingent of South African players but it is not something we have to worry about now in terms of English-qualified players, averaging 15 (in a matchday squad). We have lent into the roots and fabric of this club which is the north.

“That is why it is a big pull for Jonny, he is a Shropshire lad. It’s a massive pull for George. It means I can talk with authenticity about some of my own drivers, about some of my own motivational drivers and know that it connects with the lads. We are largely a northern English club with a hint of African whereas before it was probably half and half. Now it looks like 80/20, innit.”

Sanderson is conscious as well that the Premiership is a ruthless business. It was September 2019 when the league’s organisers were last able to stage a proper new-season launch at England Rugby HQ and the then and now turnover has been heavy.

Just four of the dozen bosses from three years ago – Saracens’ Mark McCall, London Irish’s Declan Kidney, Exeter’s Rob Baxter and Bristol’s Pat Lam – turned up last Thursday still in the same job, meaning eight coaches have been moved on (nine when you include Newcastle, who were in the Championship in 2019/20).

Unquestionably, results equal job security in the Premiership but being a local means Sanderson has an added incentive to thrive at Sale and not become part of the coaching churn across the league. “I love where I’m from, my family are really happy, it creates that want and desire to do a good job for them as well.

“There is more of a care for a set of lads and how hard they have worked and what it means to them so for them to have a season that is worthy of the effort they have put in, that truly overrides my desire to have a comfortable existence. I just want them to not let another season slip by in a place where we have got that many good people.

“We have never been more aligned since I have been here,” he added about his management ticket. “The coaching team is coaching better than it ever has. They were a little bit unsettled as a group and we are assured of our roles within it even though there is a lot of dovetailing going on.

“I have learned and will continue to learn but I have learned that in this role you have to delegate by default but maybe just hold ten per cent back so you make a decent decision at the time it is needed.”

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