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'That has been a really enjoyable change from Dean and Dimes...'

By Liam Heagney

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Simon Hammersley felt a surge of northern pride when Sale completed their dramatic business the other week of signing George Ford for the 2022/23 season. It’s one thing for the ambitious Sharks to sign household overseas names such Faf de Klerk and Lood de Jager, quite another altogether to capture a home-bird such as Leicester talisman Ford who couldn’t resist the pull of the north and the lure of a club situated just 24 miles away via the M60 from his Saddleworth bolthole.

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It means the world to Hull native Hammersley to have rugby so strongly on the map in the north of England. Exploits at Durham University put him in the shop window for 2013 recruitment by Newcastle Falcons and he is now in his third season at Sale, thriving to such an extent that he has agreed to stay on at the AJ Bell for the foreseeable future as an extension to his original three-year deal through to 2022 has already been agreed.

To say that the 28-year-old safe pair of full-back hands is chuffed would be an understatement. The bright lights of the south have never held an attraction. Instead, playing his enthusiastic part in making rugby as appealing as possible up north is a passion where Hammersley hopes one of the eventual developments at Alex Sanderson’s Sale will see them take a punt and bring a Premiership match to either Old Trafford or the Etihad.

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RugbyPass Offload on the England win over the Springboks
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RugbyPass Offload on the England win over the Springboks

Breaking the shackles was one of the big pre-pandemic drivers at Newcastle, the Falcons bringing one match a year to the football cathedral of St James’ Park in an effort to generate a wider interest in rugby beyond its Kingston Park confines. It worked, crowds of 30,174 and 27,284 smashing the previous best mark of 11,750 when they played a home game at Gateshead in 1998. That is a level of appeal that should pique the interest of Sale, especially with Ford coming into a team flourishing with the likes of this month’s star England quartet – Manu Tuilagi, Bevan Rodd, Tom Curry and Raffi Quirke.

“To sign someone of George Ford’s ability is a real statement from Sale,” cheered Hammersley over the phone to RugbyPass ahead of this Sunday’s trip to Saracens. “Especially this season he has been the form player in the Premiership. I suppose that he sees Sale as having the same qualities as he does. There is the pull of the northwest and Alex being from here, it is a real pull, that sense of community. To have someone like him adding his quality to the team is brilliant.

“Sale are doing some brilliant stuff off the field but on-field performance can help. Last season when we were doing really well the crowds picked up and there was a bit of infectiousness to winning, a good feel around the club, a good feel around the area, and it was the same at Newcastle the year we got to the semi-finals. If the team is doing well on the pitch it makes things a bit easier off the pitch for people working at the club in different roles.

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I don’t know how long the Newcastle game at St James’ Park was in the planning but it really gave us as a squad a great excitement. It was also a bit of an added pressure – you wanted a big crowd but if we get the crowd then we need to put in a performance and luckily we beat Northampton in the first one and then beat Sale in the second so it went well.

“One thing that was brilliant about those games was there were a lot of kids, quite a family atmosphere. They are the next generation of rugby players so to get them to love the sport is great. There would definitely be large crowds (if Sale moved a game to a football ground). For lads who have grown up in the northwest supporting either United or City, to get to run out at their stadium would be pretty special.

“Growing up in Yorkshire, we had a very good county age group and you realised how many good players there are in Yorkshire. From that side of it, it’s a bit of a shame that Yorkshire Carnegie have gone downhill. I don’t really know what happened to the funding and stuff in Yorkshire but it is a real shame.

“Both Sale and Newcastle have the same thing, people see them as football places, which they are with Newcastle United and the Manchester teams, but there is still a massive desire and crowds for rugby.”

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It was as a five-year-old when Sale regular Hammersley was first bitten by the rugby bug. A friend was joining Hull Ionians and, as the son of an ex-Liverpool St Helens player, he tagged along and was still there a dozen or so years later. “It was cool to have been playing for the U7s and then when I was 17 playing my first game against Loughborough Students at fly-half, it was cool to come through from minis all the way to seniors.”

Professional rugby wasn’t an immediate option, though. Instead, an economics degree at university beckoned and it was his form on the BUCS scene that eventually got him noticed by Dean Richards. The rest, as they say, is Premiership history despite arriving into Falcons as only a wee slip of a lad with some catching up to do in the strength department. “To be fair it worked absolutely perfectly,” reflected Hammersley.

“I didn’t have any choice, I wasn’t an academy player. I played county north of England but that route never really opened up for me. When I was looking at universities I wanted a good academic university but then also something that was sporty. Durham stuck out for me and it was brilliant.

“We played a really good style of rugby, you enjoyed yourself off the field and you grew up. If at 18 I came into a professional environment I would probably have struggled whereas, at university, you live away from home, you look after yourself, you don’t have your reliance on your parents and you play a great standard of rugby.

“We were fortunate to have in the team I played with Josh (Beaumont) who is at Sale, Sean Robinson who is at Newcastle, so we had a really strong team which helped and I absolutely loved it and was lucky enough to be picked up by Newcastle,” explained Hammersley. “Midway through my second year, they said, ‘Do you mind going full-time once you complete your degree?’ I managed to tick the degree box and then go into professional rugby.

“Going full-time, you knew you would have fitness sessions and I thought to myself I am a good runner, relatively quick back in those days, so I thought I am going to do well on those. But the gym testing was not my thing. They used to do a test which was max reps of 100 kilos on the bench press.

“Basically they said you don’t have to do this test, so I just had to do a one-rep max of 105 kilos which for me was good. There was only me and Tom Penny, who was a couple of years younger. He was 18 and I was 21 and we weren’t allowed to do the full set. I probably didn’t go in as strong as I might have liked (into professional rugby), but I thought I could make up for it with the running side of things.

“There were a few injuries at Newcastle when I first joined so Dean threw me into the deep end. I had an outlook where there was nothing to lose, if I am not up to the standard that is where things are at, but luckily I managed to play reasonably well and stuck around.”

Hammersley made 75 Premiership starts and one league appearance as a sub before he flew the Falcons coup for Sale. He had committed to staying at Kingston Park, signing an extension in January 2019. However, he had a relegation clause tucked into the small print of his deal that was exercised some months later when Newcastle got demoted.

“It was difficult,” remembered Hammersley about his decision to trade Newcastle for Sale. “My wife and I were really settled up there and they had given me my shot at rugby, but I always had this relegation clause. It was my mum, who isn’t into sport but comes to watch quite a bit, who said, ‘Your career can be very short, would you rather be playing Premiership or Championship rugby?’ She put it in that kind of simplistic terms and I thought, ‘Yeah, you don’t know how long your career can be’.

“Sale were interested and they had made a lot of signings. Steve Diamond and Jono Ross said they were trying to push on as a club and I thought it would be really exciting. We were enjoying Newcastle but it is sometimes nice to be pushed out of your comfort zone and this (offer) was forcing us to do that, moving professionally away from where you live and making friends elsewhere.

“I remember I had a long discussion with Dean when I told him I was going and he was really supportive. He understood from my point of view that we had five really good seasons together, so it was a shame to leave but also nice to come to a new club at the same time.”

Diamond wasn’t his boss for long, the director exiting Sale last winter, and the approach Sanderson has taken is different to what Hammersley has been used to. “It is quite a difficult comparison to make. Dean and Dimes did things more traditional. They are older DoRs who have been around the game for so much longer whereas Alex is really keen on the mental side of performance.

“It is something a lot of players agree is such a massive part of the game now and he has really brought a focus to that which I personally like and also the team really respects. The game is physical and it has skill and athleticism, things like that, but if you look at the top, top players and what sets them apart it is handling pressure consistently, consistency in performance.

“Alex has really focused on that which is a new thing I guess to me and to most of the squad. The guys who have been playing at a higher level have looked into it a bit more, so that has been a really enjoyable change from Dean and Dimes.

“We do quite a lot of things on breath work, a couple of specialists speak to us about that. And then linking mental fatigue to recovery… the early part of the week, it is maybe de-loading stress and de-loading the body but then as we move forward in the week it is how you can ramp things up on the field physically but also how you can use breathwork, a mental stimulus to get that part of you firing as well.

“The building blocks are there. The squad is littered with internationals, with quality players who are driving competition in training, and the ultimate aim is to challenge for that top four and once you are in the semi-finals, it is knock-out rugby.”

As reliably consistent as Hammersley has been in the Premiership, England recognition has been fleeting. He did his ACL with England Saxons in 2016, a memory that ties into this Sunday’s game at Saracens as their assistant Adam Powell, who was at Newcastle at the time, had suffered the same injury and they rehabbed together. There was also a run with an England XV versus the 2019 Barbarians, but nothing else despite the aerial battle becoming an even greater aspect of the sport in recent years.

“It has come a bit from international rugby,” he reckoned about the added emphasis regarding the skies. “They have really focused on the kicking game, on the pressure game and you don’t want to make mistakes in your own area which makes perfect sense. More and more Premiership teams are adapting to that approach.

“From a safety point of view, it is probably refereed a lot more as there is more focus. When I first started you probably did get a few more the odd dodgy collision whereas now there is real safeguarding of people in the air which there has to be because you are kind of helpless. If someone does something dangerous, you can’t avoid it.”

Another thing unavoidable is Hammersley’s laudable determination to raise awareness and funds for Duchenne, the muscle wasting illness affecting his six-year-old nephew Edward. A twelve-hour cycle with his father at Goodwood racing track was a summer highlight, while Sale regularly provide Hammersley with signed items to auction.

“Families are affected by different illnesses, situations, and until you speak about it or people do these kinds of things, no one really knows. At Sale, they are trying to really push for players to be doing different things off the field, particularly for charities they are interested in. Hopefully, throughout the season we can do some bigger fundraising events for what is a pretty tough illness for any family to be going through.”

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