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'There was a mob of supporters waiting to beat Chris Ashton up'

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

Sale boss Alex Sanderson has this week recalled the trouble Chris Ashton encountered on his 2014 visit to Belfast with Saracens to try and get his Sharks up for this Saturday night’s must-win Heineken Champions Cup encounter with Ulster. Both the Gallagher Premiership and URC clubs currently sit outside the qualification cut-off point in Pool B, ninth place Sale on five points with Ulster placed tenth with three points.

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That situation has set up a winner-takes-all situation at Kingspan Stadium and Sanderson, the former long-serving Saracens assistant, has been telling his Sale players about what took place nine years ago when playing away in Ireland with a Premiership club.

At the time, Ulster were one of European rugby’s heavyweight teams as they had contested the 2012 final versus Leinster and having been defeated by Saracens back at Twickenham in a 2013 quarter-final, the Irish province was determined to make home advantage count in its 2014 last-eight rematch with the Londoners.

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With Ulster’s Jared Payne red-carded just four minutes into the tie, Saracens went on to narrowly win 17-15 and the poorly received celebrations of the two-try Ashton were remembered this week by Sanderson when preparing his Sale team for the huge challenge that lies ahead.

“It is still a really worthwhile and brilliant competition for the exposure that it gives these lads on a bigger stage,” said Sanderson when asked by RugbyPass to sum up the pulse-racing confrontation that awaits Sale in round four of the revamped Champions Cup.

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“There is no substitute for that experience, having to go to a really partisan crowd like Ravenhill. I’ve been trying to describe it to the lads this week. I went there in a quarter-final with Saracens and there was a mob of supporters waiting for Chris Ashton to beat him up – and we should have let them have him. He swan-dived twice, he should have just scored the tries humbly. We looked after him, we snuck him out.

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“But you don’t get there, do you, you don’t get that kind of partisan crowd so much in the Premiership. Maybe a little bit at Gloucester. So all these kind of experiences makes them grow as people, makes them grow as players, so it is still really exciting for me even though it [the Premiership’s financial situation] makes my job a little more difficult. We know what is coming, it’s going to be a fair old ding-dong.”

Heading into the final round of the pool stages, four Premiership clubs (Sale, London Irish, Northampton and Gloucester) occupy elimination places outside the qualification cutoff for the round of 16. That is more than the Top 14’s three strugglers (Lyon, Bordeaux and Castres) and just one URC club (Ulster).

Each of the three leagues provided eight teams in the 24-strong tournament and the current playoff picture left Sanderson ruminating about the current trouble with the sustainability of professional club rugby in England. “We don’t get the support from the union, the government agencies or whatever it might be that the French get… and we need to have multiple streams of revenues to have this (salary) cap to come back up again.

“Let’s not beat around the bush, there is a world recession going on. My brother (fellow ex-England international Pat) works in the banking industry so the people directly affected by this are philanthropist owners, so they are getting the squeeze as well so I understand it from their point of view.

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“That is what is affecting the finance. Your eyes aren’t open to it if you think everything is rosy. You have to do what you can to make the best out of what is a difficult situation right now and a lot of the Premiership clubs are kind of buying into that.”

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