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'It's actually true, I've run my quickest top speeds this year'

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

New Sale signing Tom O’Flaherty is thrilled he is defying the supposed logic that the older a winger gets, the slower you are set to become. Instead, the 28-year-old is moving quicker than ever after pitching up in July for pre-season at the Sharks, the club he joined on a three-year deal after five career-making years at Exeter after he had taken a circuitous route into the pro ranks via the university rugby scene.

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His pace eventually earned him rave reviews at the Chiefs, transforming him from a fringe squad outsider into a first-team regular under Rob Baxter. All that sweat and blood culminated in the club’s joyous Gallagher Premiership/Heineken Champions Cup double in October 2020 and O’Flaherty is now looking to do it all over again – except in very different surroundings.

Manchester was only ever a place that the Londoner visited on away day duty but it is now very much his home and the move has resulted in the re-energising of his eye for a score. There were just five tries in 19 Premiership matches last term for Exeter but he has already scored four in nine league outings with Sale ahead of this Sunday’s trip to Harlequins.

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What gives? Record speeds, according to his GPS reports. “It’s actually true,” he chuckled to RugbyPass over the phone after midweek training. “I have run my quickest time, my quickest top speeds this year. On your GPS units, it tells you your speeds, your metres per second, and it tracks it during games and all that sort of stuff.

“I don’t know, I really don’t know (the reason for the improvement). At Sale, we have got a slightly different gym programme, different training week, so I probably get a bit more time to recover which helps but other than that I don’t know. Just keep eating my porridge in the morning.”

A few other things have helped his successful bedding in 240 miles up the M5 from Devon. Yoga has fine-tuned his body while getting quickly accepted by the Sharks squad was another aspect bringing out the best in him. “I have done a bit more yoga since being here which is helping my body and feeling a lot looser. I do some breathing exercises here and there as well which I enjoy, but yoga has helped.

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“Ultimately you have got to be yourself whatever you are doing,” he added about the nervousness of joining a new Premiership club after his chunky spell at the Chiefs. “Knowing Sam Hill helped but all the boys were very hospitable, friendly and open, so they made it easy to be myself. We had a trip to Connacht away in pre-season which also helped bed in. But yeah, you have just got to be yourself, don’t you, and the lads made it very easy to do that.

“Also, good rugby environments are relatively similar. It’s not as if I’m walking into a completely changed job or walk of life. There is an element of comfort there in that you are doing the same job and whatever, but ultimately it is the people around you that make you feel comfortable and everyone made me feel very comfortable.”

So too his pursuits away from the game, particularly fishing. “You sometimes go fishing in north Wales, go out for breakfast quite a lot with the lads and I recently got a dog so that takes up a bit of time. I have always done fishing but it’s not the time of year for it because it’s a bit too cold.

“When it’s in season, it’s usually seabass mainly, pollock, lobsters and all sorts, just whatever is there really. I find it relaxing, it just clears your head and gets you away from the game. No one gives away their secret spots but I have just been in and around Anglesey which is like an island basically.

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“In the summer months and on the weekends we have off, I’m camping and fishing and then sometimes on my day off, I actually went surfing last weekend to be fair, down near Abersoch which was nice. I bring a few boys flyfishing but I am more into pier fishing. Raffi Quirke, I have been with him a few times and he enjoyed it. A few boys go flyfishing because there are a few rivers and whatnot around here (in Manchester) and reservoirs.”

It was last March when the Sale recruitment of O’Flaherty was announced, the marriage confirmed three months after a deal had been struck to bring Jonny Hill, his Exeter colleague to the Sharks. How and why did his own move come about? “I just fancied a change. I’d been at Exeter for five years and just thought it was the right time to move on.

“Yeah, just fancied a change of scenery. I just thought it would a shame not to maximise all the opportunities you get in your career, so I decided to move and it’s so far so good. From a rugby perspective, I always knew Sale were a good team and by the time I signed it had already been announced that George (Ford) had signed and I knew that Jonny had signed as well and I spoke to Al (Sanderson).

“I had a Zoom with him and that was about an hour or so and then as negotiations take a bit of time, they can go on over months, he sent me texts and stuff so we conversed throughout it and he just seems like a nice, authentic bloke. That really appealed to me and that is what ultimately led me to sign.

“I really liked what he is building, the way he spoke about what he is trying to achieve as a club. I just thought it would be the right time and also because it is a new challenge playing in different structures and different ways which I have thoroughly enjoyed.

“Jonny actually sent him a text before I signed with a photo of the two of us in it. I don’t know if that might have prompted Alex to get things going. There were a few late-night texts as well. Good fun… All the interactions I have had with him seem to be good. He is just authentic and interesting and is a good guy to speak to. Not anything in particular but I just enjoy his company, enjoy learning and being in the environment that he is cultivating.

“I spoke to Sam Hill as well before coming down. He was always a bit of a clown at Exeter and nothing seems to have changed here. He gets the boys laughing the most. He showed me the ropes around Manchester and around the club which was also a help.”

So too his background in the game, starting in the minis section at Old Alleynians in London before getting to Exeter via Ospreys following a university degree at Cardiff that involved a year studying in France and a stint with the Montpellier espoirs.

“It just gave me a bit more appreciative of the career, starting a bit later,” reckoned O’Flaherty. “All my mates from uni and school are all doing different things and I suppose as I grow older you realise it is good to have the career that you have.

“A lot of people want to be in the position that I’m in and so not being in it from minute one and doing a variety of things, it makes you realise that you are lucky and that you have had a chance to experience other things when I was young. It was good. I suppose you could say it was grounding.”

The uni route in the pro ranks has become a regular pathway in recent times. “Yeah, definitely. Alex Dombrandt was another one, he went to Cardiff Met. Clubs are picking up more from unis or they are giving players that are signing a chance to go to uni which is good.

“You can see how people could potentially lose love for the game if they are just doing it from minute one whereas if you are doing it more for enjoyment at uni and you have got a lot socially going on, it gives you a chance to let loose and once you’re in full-time you are in full-time and then you can start honing your skills.”

That said, he didn’t become an instant success at the Chiefs. “I’d to bide my time a bit in that first year at Exeter but I had top-quality international competition ahead of me, top-quality wingers ahead so it was understandable. You learn a lot from those people. I’d to bide my time a little bit but you’re there for a reason.

“He [Rob Baxter] hasn’t chosen you to make up the numbers. You are there for a reason and then you have just got to put your best foot forward, learn as much as you can and then give it the best crack you can. He gave me advice but not a single piece of it stands out. It just cultivates you to work extremely hard I suppose, which is basically the lynchpin of everything and it can’t be overlooked. I just still try and stick to that, which is working.”

Midway through the season, Sale are heading to London in second place having won eight of their eleven Premiership matches so far while they also comprehensively won one of their two European fixtures. The highlights for O’Flaherty? “I’d say beating Ulster so convincingly. And then to be fair the performance last weekend (against Leicester) was a good one too. Either one of those two.

“I’d say we probably kick a bit more here at Sale (than at Exeter) and manage the game a little bit more but then also in recent weeks when we have performed well we have played at the right times as backs. There is probably less running from anywhere here, probably a little more balance. It has been good, I have really enjoyed it, enjoyed playing in the new shape, the new coaches, the new structure. It is always good to keep the blade sharp.”

You mention kicking, does that mean more aerial responsibility? “Yeah, I’d say ish. When I say we kick more we probably have kick battles not necessarily box kicking off nine. We do that as well but there is more variety of kicks and all that sort of stuff. Kicking is a big part of the game but also more variety of kicks. It’s just a difference from being at Exeter that I have gotten used to.

“You have to be a bit more careful these days because everything seems to be quite outcome based,” he added about the aerial contest. “It doesn’t matter that you are going for the ball. If the guy catching it, the so-called receiver, if he ends up head or neck, you have got to be a bit more careful in that respect but my aerial skills are alright.”

Next on the getting-used-to agenda is the suite of law directives that World Rugby introduced from January 1 to speed up the action. The Sale game at Harlequins is their first under the upgrade, but O’Flaherty isn’t a fan of the frequent alterations.

“In principle, it seems good but they seem to change the laws all the time. I don’t know. In principle, yeah, but we’ll see. They always get a period of over-correction in the first few weeks and I’m sure there will be some of that. We’ll see. I don’t know. The scrum and lineout, neither of them are particularly my bag so it doesn’t really affect me much.

“Does the game need to change? It is hard to change the game completely because it’s a great game. The rules are quite quirky as it is but they sort of underpin the whole thing and they are quite intricate. Sometimes the law changes seem to come in mid-season and I don’t know whether they have consulted on them. I don’t know but someone is changing them somewhere. Some of them are good to be fair. I quite like the 50/22 rule, I actually think that is a good rule and then others seem to change and then change back. I don’t know – but the 50/22 is a good one.”

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