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'As a raw talent with potential, he's as good as anyone at tighthead'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Alex Sanderson reckons Sale will only have themselves to blame if promising 21-year-old tighthead James Harper doesn’t become a regular long-term first-teamer given the raw talents at his disposal.

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In a climate where Gallagher Premiership contracts are difficult to come by and numerous players are clubless free agents heading into the new 2022/23 season, the Sharks have nailed their colours to the Harper mast by agreeing to an early three-year extension with the front-rower, who had been contracted until summer 2023.

A former England U18s pick, Harper came through the Sale academy and made his debut at London Irish in March 2021 while also appearing for Championship club Coventry that same season as a dual registered player.

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He has since suffered a serious knee injury and to accelerate his development following a 2021/22 season where he only made a single Sale appearance in March, it was decided to send him to Australia to play some Shute Shield rugby with Western Sydney.

Now back in England where he has worked his way through the pre-season, Sale have high hopes that the youngster will in the long-term fulfil his potential and generously add to his current total of seven appearances for the club.

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Asked why Sale had decided to give an enormous length contract extension to Harper, who has only played one game for them in the past 15 months, director of rugby Sanderson explained: “Because we have seen how good he can be, what kind of a man he is. He was where he is now this time last year and he injured his knee badly, did the whole thing.

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“It was a good nine months out and then it has taken him that time to get back to the level that he was and now it is there where we can see the potential of him being an exceptional player. To be more specific, this guy has got his own business in refurbishing mobility scooters and has got two or three people working for him so he is extremely industrious, he is a great man-manager.

“This is a 21-year-old man who can squat 300kgs, who has got his own head, can run a ball into contact, who is very intelligent, who has the respect of everyone in the squad and is probably a leader amongst his peers I would say. The character and the physical ability this man has, plus his want and desire to be able to learn and take things in, is all there.

“With these guys, you have to give them the time to mature and the security to do that. If he doesn’t make it in three years’ time we have probably done something wrong, that is how I see it. As a raw talent with potential, he is as good as anyone out there at tighthead.”

Long-term deals for young players with potential is something Sanderson wants to see more of at Sale. “We are trying to do it with all our young lads for all the reasons I have talked about. It’s the agents that are stopping us, thinking we want them for cheap which is not the case.

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“It is imperative to invest in these lads, especially the homegrown lads, to keep them together and watch them flourish.”

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