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How an 'irretrievable' Sale remark led to a Manu Tuilagi red card

By Liam Heagney
Manu Tuilagi's red-carded foul at Northampton (Photo by Alex Davidson/Getty Images for Sale Sharks)

One thing Sale boss Alex Sanderson has very much steered clear of this week is giving Manu Tuilagi any motivational pep talks ahead of Sunday’s Gallagher Premiership semi-final against Leicester. The previous occasion he purposely got into the head of the England powerhouse had devastating consequences for the Sharks centre.

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It was mid-February when Tuilagi, having not featured in the England matchday 23 for the opening two rounds of the Guinness Six Nations, returned to Manchester to get some Premiership game time.

All fine in theory, but pity about the execution. Just 14 minutes was all he managed at Franklin’s Gardens, a red card for an illegal collision with Tommy Freeman resulting in a four-game ban for the soon-to-be 32-year-old that was reduced to three through his successful completion of the World Rugby coaching intervention tackle programme.

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Tuilagi was reinstated by England for their final round match away to Ireland and having since gone back to Sale and agreed to a contract extension taking him through to the end of the 2023/24 season, he is set for his fifth post-Six Nations club appearance when the Sharks welcome the Tigers to the AJ Bell with a place in the Twickenham final at stake.

Victory for Sale would see them participate in English club rugby’s showpiece event for just the second time – and the first since 2006 – and Sanderson explained during the build-up to the semi-final that he hasn’t had to rev the engines of talisman Tuilagi and the orchestrating George Ford.

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“I haven’t seen a different look in their eyes,” he said. “Last time I tried to motivate Manu he got sent off, so I don’t think he needs the chord pulling – and George is very level-headed anyway.” Tell us more about that last-time Tuilagi motivation. “He had actually come from England and it was, ‘They are wondering if you have still got your bang, Manu?’ That was it. It was irretrievable for the rest of the week.

“Even afterwards, I went and took him out when we were doing the Manu Tuilagi contract saga and I said, ‘Manu, all week we were saying in meetings how we need to be controlled with our physicality, I just felt like it was going to happen’. And he said, ‘Do you know what, I did (too)’. And he goes, ‘How can we better that?’

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“Do I have to say to you, ‘Don’t fly an elbow drop? Do I have to be specific or can we have a conversation if we start to both feel it in the week where we just both call it out as opposed to let it ride, which we did?’”

So, what has Tuilagi been like in preparations this week to take on Leicester, his former club, in a fixture with so much riding on it? “Like, I say he seems pretty chilled. He’s good. He seems really chilled,” assured Sanderson.

“What he has proven since then [the sending off] is yes, that he has still got his bang and is actually on really good form and has played some of his best rugby and has been at his most robust this year than he has been for the last 10 years, so we are getting to where we want to get with him, which is playing his best, being in his best form leading into this World Cup.

“That was our deal (before) and now we have got a new deal where I want him to be on form next year as well – but at this point in time we are in a good place.”

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Leicester arrive at the AJ Bell as the defending champions and that status has Sanderson and co ready to battle. “It’s everything. A team playing together in terms of their cohesion and their ability to understand negative contingencies in the pressure cooker-type games is worth points on the board, it’s worth its weight in gold,” he reckoned about the menace that the Tigers possess.

“You just can’t practice experience and they have got that experience. Not only that, I dare say they will be frothing at the mouth, steam coming out of the ears, fire and brimstone. We have beaten them twice and I have heard it through England camp that they wanted us, they wanted to play us.

“Cheeky bastards, why us? Do they think we have a soft underbelly? It’s not that, I don’t think. I have just looked at it from their point of view and if somebody had beaten me twice, I’d want them – so let’s give them the same respect as what we would give ourselves. I’m not worried but I am aware of it, it’s definitely going to be an influencing factor all that going into this game.”

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