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Emotional Alex Sanderson issues apology to the retiring Jono Ross

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images for Sale Sharks)

Alex Sanderson jetted out to Marbella on Sunday with his beaten Sale having issued an apology to Jono Ross that the Sharks were unable to give their South African skipper a winning Gallagher Premiership final send-off.

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Saturday at Twickenham was the final game of the 32-year-old’s career before his retirement and the club that he joined in 2017/18 agonisingly fell short of lifting the trophy.

The title was theirs for their taking as they were leading 23-25 and pressing the Saracens line for another try. However, a crucial lineout was lost five metres out, another set-piece throw went astray on halfway and after a clearance kick was then charged down, the Londoners struck for two tries in a four-minute spell to clinch a rumbustious 35-25 win in the glorious summer sun.

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It left director of rugby Sanderson crestfallen at the end of his second full season in charge at the club he joined following his lengthy apprenticeship as a Saracens assistant and amongst his sombre post-game musings was an expression of regret that Ross wasn’t exiting as an English league champion.

It was a question about the impressive form of Manu Tuilagi in the final that got Sanderson around to paying tribute to both his midfielder and his now-retired back row.

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“Manu is playing his best rugby, he is at his most robust and we said this was the aim two-and-a-half years ago, to be playing his best rugby going into the World Cup and we have achieved that – but he is just one of 23 players who I am immensely proud of today.

“There is another one sitting right here, he is another who I thought just put everything on the line. I am going to miss him. Manu, I have got another year with but Jono, for everything that he brings, I am going to miss him and I am sorry we couldn’t send you off, mate, in the manner that we both wanted.”

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Ross will say his goodbyes to the squad in Spain but he used the final answer at the post-match Sale media briefing to sum up his six-year sojourn in Manchester, book-ending a career that started out at the Bulls in Pretoria before switching to France for three years at Stade Francais.

“It’s a special place. It has grown over the years, over the last two years with Alex and gone to another level. I owe a lot to Al, to this club, to the people at this club. Simon (Orange), Ged (Mason), Michelle (Orange), they have given me a lot.

“I have had two kids born in Manchester. It will always be our home away from home. I’ll miss Sale, I’ll miss rugby, but it is the right time for me to bow out. Next is to enjoy a couple of days with the boys, get back home, get back on the farm, enjoy some sun and then get cracking on the future. Time with my family.

“I’m really proud of this group,” he added. “We have grown, we have improved. It is the start of an era and as long as we get heads down next year and improve, I can’t see why this group won’t be here fighting for titles year in and year out.”

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That is a message Sanderson vowed to relay to his relatively young Sale squad. “I’ll be telling them to get used to this place. There are definitely a few conversations about the feeling that we will be here again.  

“The odd fairy tale (win in your first final) does happen but rarely in my experience. You have just got to be better at handling moments like the ones that occurred today and that takes experience.

“That is what we got today, that is what we will build on and we will get better. We are a young side for the most part. I am sure after the crushing feeling they have right now of missed opportunity, the underlying emotion would be one of pride and excitement for what we can build on.”

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