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How Sale signed Ford: 'He isn't on much more than what AJ is paid'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Malcolm Couzens/Getty Images)

Alex Sanderson has promised he will celebrate on Wednesday night with a bottle of Malbec after Sale dramatically agreed to a lunchtime deal that will see George Ford, the 2019 England World Cup final out-half, join the Manchester-based club on a three-year deal from Leicester at the end of the 2021/22 season. The recruitment of the 28-year-old, 77-cap Ford is a massive coup for the Sharks and the transfer coup was completed in record-quick time as it was only last week when the need for a high calibre out-half officially emerged at the club. 

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It was only last Wednesday when it was confirmed that AJ MacGinty, who has been with Sale since 2016, will join Bristol for the 2022/23 season. Sanderson, though, already had a couple of conversations with Ford by that stage and an agreement was swiftly concluded by Sale once it became known MacGinty was quitting for the Bears. 

“I’m extremely excited, really excited, buzzing, jumping out of my boots excited. I’m excited,” enthused Sanderson at a hastily arranged media briefing after Ford had signed on the bottom line and agreed to become a Sale player from next July.  

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On the surface, the signing suggests that Sale must have forked out a shedload of cash to get the signature of Ford, but Sanderson insisted that wasn’t the case – although the transfer will have a ripple effect on the make-up of the Sharks roster which is braced to absorb the already-agreed 25 per cent reduction in the Premiership salary cap for next season.  

“This signing of George Ford does have a ripple effect,” admitted Sanderson. “He signed half an hour ago so that is sitting with the stakeholders now, so it would be foolish of me in the extreme to comment now (on its budgetary effects). But in the next three or four weeks, it will become obvious.

“Look, it’s none of your business really but he [Ford] is not on much more than what AJ’s got paid, so do the maths there. We’re not losing out much there… I hate talking about finances, I am not an accountant, I am a rugby coach and I’m still learning my way as a director of rugby. I understand what a team needs, I understand the importance of not ripping the heart out of a team. These are my two aims. 

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“I want to push this team forward, get better. If that means better personnel then we will do that but I have no intention of ripping the heart out of a club that I was at 20 years ago, that I played in, that I love, so the next two or three weeks are going to be very challenging.”

Sale have form for making a big signing from Leicester. Manu Tuilagi arrived in summer 2020 but if – like the midfielder – it wasn’t money that convinced Ford that his club career would be best served by joining Sale from next summer through to 2025, what was the attraction? “We offer more on the holistic needs as well as their ambitions for it to be a more attractive offer than just a paycheque. That is not on me, it’s on the men they are,” reckoned Sanderson.

“I was instructed through his [Ford’s] agent that he might be interested in coming home. Might I add this is the third conversation in five years that Sale has had with George Ford about the possibility he could come home. For other reasons unbeknownst to me – he will surely tell you – it just so happened that this was the right time.”

Ford is a regular visitor to his hometown of Saddleworth, which is just a short 24-mile spin away from the Sale AJ Bell Stadium, so coming home was indeed part of the pull for the out-half. “It was big but you have got to ask him about his motivations,” suggested Sanderson. “It [coming home] was mentioned. I talked about my own decision (moving from Saracens to Sale last January), as it was a big factor for me as well.

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“These are things we spoke about: Where the club is at, the ambition of the club, what we are trying to build and what you can do to be a part of the fabric of the north. Which one of those had a greater influence? Being the man he is, I’d probably say the latter two. How could you argue with Leicester doing as well as there they are that it was purely about rugby? 

“If it was purely about the rugby he would probably have stayed where he is. Steve Borthwick has done a great job there. Leicester are building as well. They are on a journey. But my forever philosophy is that it has to be more than just a game to get the most out of a person, it has to be about the person.

“Negotiations from my end were very open, honest, casual. I have known of George for years but never truly met him, never sat down and had a coffee. It was about getting to know him, what drives him, what his aspirations are on and off the field… it is a big decision for anyone to move clubs. 

“To do it in his pomp, to do it at this stage in his career, to come home to the north where he is from, it is a big decision. He gave it due diligence. There were a couple of discussions around that and around what we were trying to do. We didn’t aggressively go out and seek him. It was just a meeting of minds really. 

“In the true sense of the word it [the exit of MacGinty last week] speeded up the process. I had a conversation with George only a day or two before, that soon before, and it was an open conversation, not one where fees or anything was put on the table. It was where are you at, where are we at, what are your aspirations.

“And then AJ was adamant he wanted to leave so we were in the market for someone of real calibre. Who wouldn’t be in the market for George Ford? As soon as AJ left and there was a bit of a gap there, there was a necessity for someone of his ability to take us forward and it went from a simple chat into a more serious discussion.

“I don’t know how much of what George told me is sensitive to the public. It’s no secret that we are looking to spend more time and resources on the mental side of the game and as a senior player George is fully aware of the importance of that, staying in the moment, the closed skill of kicking for which he already employs a mental coach for. 

“All of these things here at Sale are part of the schedule whereas in other places they are an extra resource but not here. We include that here, welcome it and we will look to have some guidance on how to improve it when he does come in. He was attracted by that part of it. 

“He is also very keen to bring our young lads on, two young fly-halves (Kieran Wilkinson and Tom Curtis) who he can have a massive influence on. That is huge. You are not just getting the player, you are getting the person who is looking to buy into what we are doing… We actively encourage players’ extra-curricular activities and George has got a coffee shop in Saddleworth next door to his girlfriend’s Italian which they are renovating.

“We are going to help them with that because it is important that people are industrious off the field as it transfers on the field. It is important you have something going on so if you have a bad day, the sky doesn’t fall in and it [another interest] brings you around a bit quicker. They were the kind of conversations we had,” continued Sanderson about a player he described as one of the best out-halves in the world.

“What will it do for the club? Our aspirations are quite transparent, something that is lasting, something that will go beyond my tenure and possibly George’s. But George wants part of that, he wants to be part of an organisation that is successful and not just in terms of silverware but its transcendency. They are big words but if you don’t aim to such heights you are never going to reach them.”

Ford hasn’t featured for England since a humbling Six Nations defeat to Ireland last March, Eddie Jones since favouring Marcus Smith. Sanderson, though, believes Sale can help him get back into the Test fold. “Absolutely it will help him get back, without a shadow of a doubt. I want every one of our players to aspire to the highest level of rugby they can achieve. 

“We talked a little bit about his England career and it’s not Tom Curry here alone anymore, it’s a Tom Curry, a Bevan Rodd, a Manu on the outside, a Raffi (Quirke) on the inside and we have only just started. There is more to come. Not just signings, but the potential we have got within these four walls.

“I haven’t actually called him for a week because I just wanted him to make his own mind up, not pester him and push him,” added Sanderson about the mechanics of the deal being finalised. “There was going to be so much noise around the lad, so much noise from everywhere, and I didn’t want to be another voice in that decision. The rapidity of how it has happened is a little bit of a shock to me but going back to the AJ MacGinty scenario, there were lots of little discussions and it never seemed right.

“When I stayed at Saracens for 17 years all in, the length of negotiation was about two minutes. Are you happy? Yeah. Do you want a new contract? Yeah. Done. It should be that easy. If you want to be at a place it should be that easy once you have got all the facts in front of you… This (Ford deal) has happened in almost less than a week and when they get drawn out you are going back to the wrong reasons. Generally, it’s because you are squabbling over cash terms or whatever, but if it’s right it’s right and the rest is detail.

“I’ll celebrate, I’ll have a bottle of wine tonight but to think this place is just me, how narcissistic is that. Thank you for the compliment, but it really isn’t just me. There are 75 people, 45 playing staff and the rest behind the scenes, maybe going up to 100 with the commercial. 

“What makes up an organisation is far more than the man and that is exactly what I said to Simon Orange when I was coming in, I had no magic wand, I have come here to add and to help and maybe I was just that extra little bit of weight that tipped the scales (with Ford) in the right direction… it still isn’t about me but I will take the compliment and will have a bottle of Malbec, but I am not taking the credit.”

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