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'Look, it's a failure potentially on my part but I tried...'

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

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Alex Sanderson has described his mixed feelings following the recent sudden departure of Denny Solomona from Sale. The ex-England international was due to have contract extension talks with the Sharks only for the discussions to quickly end with Solomona being released early from his existing contract in order to return home to New Zealand. It was a turn of events that took Sale boss Sanderson by surprise as he and his staff had worked hard to get Solomona back into the first-team mix following his latest issues with mental health. 

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That desire was fulfilled in September when the 27-year-old came off the bench at London Irish to make his first appearance since February, a development that Sanderson described as one of his proudest moments since taking charge at the Sharks in early 2021.  

Solomona went on to make six appearances in total this season but rather than that being the springboard to an extension of his stay at the Manchester club he joined from rugby league’s Castleford in 2016, his Premiership Cup start at Leicester on November 13 was instead his final match for the club as Sale announced 13 days later that the five-cap England winger was heading home to New Zealand for personal reasons and would potentially continue his playing career there. 

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John Afoa guests on the latest RugbyPass Offload
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Sanderson wished Solomona all the very best for the rest of his career and beyond in the media statement that accompanied the player’s release, but he revisited the situation this week when asked by RugbyPass to shed some light on what had transpired. “I am happy for him in that I think this could be what he needs for his overall happiness,” said the Sale director of rugby ahead of this weekend’s Champions Cup assignment at Ospreys.

“We tried everything we did but he probably wasn’t getting it here and I have always maintained that you need to be at least content in all parts of your life to get the best out of you on the field. The best players are those that have everything sorted and flowing. Denny didn’t have those things.

“Look, it’s a failure potentially on my part but I tried, we tried with professionals, everything we could to get him in that right spot and try as we might, it was still too far a reach for him. I thought we were there and we were in parts, but it was a bit of a struggle. All of that sounds negative but it is not negative if he has gone to a better place and he and his family are happy. That is the way I can justify my efforts and not feel like I let him down. I don’t think I have let him down. We have helped him get to a place where he was miles better than he was when I turned up. 

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“He knows what he wants. He has taken his family out there (to New Zealand) and I think it has put him in a good place. There are mixed feelings there, mixed feelings because I didn’t get what I wanted out of him here but I think we will probably see more of him to come. 

“I have heard he has gone back to New Zealand, he missed his parents, his mum terribly. Hadn’t seen her for years. That was part of his motivation and he has now got a little daughter and a Wiganese wife, so he has taken a bit of Wigan back to New Zealand to see his parents. He was a little bit late on the recruitment front but he is probably doing the rounds for teams who need a back three player or have an injury and he can just jump in there at the last minute and that would be his route through to Super.”

It was 2017 when the Auckland-born Solomona made his England debut as a sub winger away to Argentina. He went on to play four more times as a replacement but the June 2018 Cape Town win over the Springboks was his last matchday involvement under Eddie Jones and the chances are that history will treat his Test career as a case of what might have been even though there is the possibility that he could now switch allegiance to Samoa under the tweaked World Rugby eligibility regulations.

Having come through the coaching ranks at Saracens, ex-England back row Sanderson knows what it takes to have a lengthy Test career having been involved over the years with coaching the likes of England skipper Owen Farrell. He made his 100th international appearance last month in the win over Australia, his 94th cap for England to add to the six won with the Lions.

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“If you look at just the statistics and his ability to earn 50 caps, yes he [Solomona] has not been an Owen Farrell. I had a bit of an insight into Owen’s background and I understand how well supported he has been throughout his life, through his parents and everything else. He basically lived at home until he was about 24, 25 and is still very close with his dad and his mum. 

“He has got a very stable support base which he has made the most of because he is an unbelievable individual. I don’t think Denny had any of that, he hasn’t had any of that. I don’t want to get too personal but he was from the back streets of Auckland, he has gone around everywhere and, as you know because he has been in the press, he has had a quite tumultuous backstory of relationships and ambivalence. 

“He has now got himself to a place where he wants to see his family, he is very much in love with his wife, they have got a baby girl, and maybe that is the springboard, the platform for him to push on. I am sure it is, that is why I think it is a good thing for him to be doing in going back there. He hasn’t achieved what maybe he could have achieved (with England) but I don’t think he has been given a level playing field.”

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