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'What stuck out was some of the messages were pretty disgusting'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images for Sale Sharks)

Trending on RugbyPass

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Simon McIntyre couldn’t help himself a year ago when Sale boss Alex Sanderson wanted a chat. He was a wide-eyed 20-year-old when he bailed out of Manchester, quitting the Sharks academy in 2011 in preference for the bright lights of London and a shot at making it at Wasps.

Now after a decade buzzing at the coalface for a club that had since upped sticks and moved lock, stock and barrel to Coventry, he was faced with a dilemma: to stick with Wasps, to take up offers elsewhere or else bring it all back home at the age of 30 and return to his Mancunian roots by rejoining Sale on a one-year contract?

A single chat made up his mind. “There were various different offers around that time but for me, it was the conversation that I had with Alex when I met him,” explained McIntyre to RugbyPass about what proved most decisive when it came to deciding where his future lay for the 2021/22 season.

“I remember speaking to my agent straight after and it was like, ‘I’m in trouble here’. It was always a curiosity that I had throughout my career of coming back one day. I didn’t know it was going to happen and when the opportunity presented itself it felt right at this time.”

The Sale boss has continued to positively rub off on McIntyre since then. “The meetings are entertaining. If you think the press conferences are entertaining he has us doing all sorts of little games and stuff in some of the meetings – and no two meetings are the same,” continued McIntyre, speaking over the phone after training in a week that will culminate in Sunday’s glamour Heineken Champions Cup trip to Racing.

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“He gets into his creative flow there and tries to challenge us in terms of thinking differently and opening ourselves up which has been quite refreshing. The contrast between our DNA on the field and what he is trying to bring in off the field is very holistic. We are trying to create strong connections both on and off the field. Something that he said that has stuck with me was pressure is a privilege.

“Each week we are tested and try to impose the DNA of our team but when you come to pressure games like this with people popping up you tend not to see and there is a buzz generally around rugby in the north-west this week, that sort of feeling is not a hindrance to us. It isn’t something that we should be scared of. It’s exciting and we really enjoy going to work on the weekend. It is a real privilege for us to be able to experience these moments.

“It’s a different kind of week just because of the nature of the competition and the stage that we are at. It’s a bit different from how we plan our weeks which keeps us nice on our toes. We deserve to be where we are now. We have been good value in this competition and what a statement a win would be to the rest of the competition. We are going out to do a job and come back with a semi-final.”

McIntyre is perfectly placed to assess how far Sale have come as a club in the last decade having initially had a taste as a rookie and then returning as an established Premiership level prop after a decade elsewhere. “Coming back into Sale at this point in my career was nice. It doesn’t feel the same.

“There are a few faces still around and it’s nice to have that nostalgia and think back to the beginnings of my career, but it is definitely a very different place and I have really enjoyed it. Every week Alex and our coaching staff bring a lot of energy and creativity to the way they deliver things and it is just a nice way to have a new start for myself. Learning to do things a different way has been a challenge in itself and something I felt like I needed.

“Absolutely, the ambitions of the club speak for themselves. Like the number of years that Sale have had the likes of Faf (de Klerk) and Lood (de Jager) here is fantastic. What they have brought from the environments they have been in, there are not too many teams that can say they have two recent World Cup winners in their ranks to learn off.

“It’s great for me to hear some of their ways of thinking and how they approach the game. And you look at the likes of Tom Curry, Bevan Rodd, Raffi Quirke, these players that are starting to get international recognition, it definitely speaks a lot to what is developing here, the young players coming through that we have.

“It’s exciting times and reflecting on the club that I left back then into the one that I am at now, it’s vast worlds apart and it does feel like a big club. I do feel like we are starting to establish that and over the next few years the development and infrastructure off the pitch in a football city with world teams like Manchester United and City, rugby in the northwest is really going to explode and it’s an exciting time to be here.”

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McIntyre wouldn’t reveal if he will definitely be around next term. “What my next steps are will be announced soon,” he teased but what is certain is his delight that he accepted the chance a year to come home. “Manchester is completely changed from how I remembered it. Some of the shops I used to go to aren’t there anymore which has been nice as I have been able to go and discover new pockets of the city that I hadn’t really been to or knew too well.

“I was a kid at that point (in the academy), so certain things I enjoy now I probably didn’t appreciate back then. Manchester is an unbelievable city. I love it here. It’s home as well so the fact that my family and friends that I grew up with and have kept in contact with since I have been away are close by is really special. They can come to games and support me not from afar anymore.”

It was at a Sale game when McIntyre’s mind as an impressionable teenager was first fully opened to the potential of a professional career. He’d never been along to a Premiership match until he was invited to a Friday night game at their old Edgeley Park home in Stockport and what unfolded fired the imagination about black players in rugby.

“My club team [Broughton Park] was a lot different. We’d quite a few black players playing for us which was funny at the time. Some of the looks we used to get when we turned up to some clubs, it was pretty bizarre to see but in the representative stuff, the counties thing that I was involved with or those early academy sessions with Sale, largely I was the only black player there.

“So going to a professional rugby match I didn’t really know what to expect because I didn’t really watch it at all at a young age. But to be able to see a visibly black player on the team (Jason Robinson) and every time he got on the ball there was this buzz in the air about what he was going to do next, I’d seen sport as something that wasn’t attainable for myself but that was one of those moments I look back on now and realise it did have an effect on how I perceived my presence in the game.”

It was June 2020, around the time when Black Lives Matter protests were taking place, that McIntyre stuck his head above the parapet and spoke out about racism in rugby. He was a 13-year-old when he experienced it overtly, some disgruntled opposition calling his team “cotton-pickers”. There was also a coach that made crass racist jokes under the pretext of banter when he was within earshot.

How does McIntyre reflect now on the impact of what he had to passionately say 23 months ago? “In my headspace, the world was really hairy at that point. To assume that sport operates in a vacuum that isn’t directly affected by social things happening in the world is naive. It’s something that affects us all and some of the polarising things that happened with the murder of George Floyd, what stuck out for me was some of the messages were pretty disgusting.

“Some of the messages were saying this isn’t a problem in rugby, what happens in America doesn’t affect here, it’s nothing to do with the UK, it’s nothing to do with sport in the UK. There are a lot of instances in recent years and since then where we have seen that we are not in a vacuum, these things do penetrate English society and the systems that create inequality are there to be seen and have now been highlighted a lot more than they were before over the course of my lifetime.

“In terms of me getting that message out, I felt like I needed to say something and I felt very empowered. I have to hold my hat off to Wasps for amplifying my voice at that time because they were very supportive. They gave me a platform and the more we can have those conversations and get an understanding can only be a good thing sign for society as a whole.

“I do believe in player activism and speaking on subjects that are important to you. We have a very big drive on in rugby for mental health and the platform created is absolutely fantastic. There is so much space for us to talk about other issues as well and that is how I felt at that point to talk about these things that were close to my heart and having conversations with people I was playing with, that I had played with in the past, the experiences of past players in rugby.

“I felt like it was important for people to start sharing their stories and I really loved the fact that a lot of players came out and started talking about these issues or the things they encountered over the years in rugby, to let’s actually start to hear some of these stories.

“That is going on in the RFU, they now have an advisory council and I hope some lasting, systemic changes will come from it because I know there are a lot of great people on there but there is still a long way to go in terms of the actual decisions.”

McIntyre has the utmost respect for the likes of fellow prop Beno Obano, whose Everybody’s Game documentary sharpened the spotlight on diversity in rugby. “It is slowly starting to come around but there is still a long way to go. My experience coming through at a young age was there was a distinct lack of resources available to me.

“I didn’t go to a traditional rugby school and the local club I had I was lucky. It was just by chance it was close by where I grew up and the coaching I received there really held me in good stead. But I wonder what the lack of resources is doing in terms of missing a lot of talent identification in non-traditional pathways.

“Could there be more done looking for the next players coming through from diverse backgrounds? Absolutely. There is no shying away from the fact rugby is still very much looked at as an elitist game. I don’t think anyone can argue that rugby is still looked at in that way. But what some players are doing to break down stereotypes of perception of the game, what Beno Obano is doing at the moment is really inspiring stuff in terms of sharing his story.

“The more players can share their story and use their platform to bring the game to people from other backgrounds, that is only going to enhance the game, grow the fanbase in a way that more people are able to be involved in the special game that it is. But it is about access and looking at ways to engage communities that rugby hasn’t really tended to bother with.

“The signs are more and more diverse talent is going to come through. That is inevitable with the way society is made up and the people we have coming into the country, it is a wonderful thing to reach wider communities – how much better and how much more enhanced the future England teams could be?

“That is something I’m really passionate about, the reflection of society, sport reflecting the make-up of society. If it is closed off to certain communities and we are not seeing representation in our sports then socially it really takes away from the power of what sport can do. Sport should be used as a machine to drive a lot of social change and I hope in the future we continue to see that unfold and have diverse England teams in whichever sport and hopefully in rugby.”

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What hugely helped McIntyre make the grade was having Dai Young, the ex-Wales and Lions prop, as his Wasps boss. “I don’t think I’d be as obsessed with scrums if it wasn’t for him in terms of the level of detail and the little nuances and dark arts of scrummaging, the difference between placing your foot versus where he told me to put it, the detail was absolutely fantastic and for a young prop, there weren’t many better environments to learn from somebody that decorated in the game.”

It was Young who convinced McIntyre to switch back to loosehead after he had moved to tighthead at the Sale academy. “I actually played England U18s at loosehead before starting at Sale and Phil Keith-Roach told me I was perfect for a tighthead, so he converted me. I only played two, maybe three years tighthead if you include that first year at Wasps.

“Then Dai basically sat me down and said we can keep going with playing at tighthead and we think you can play there but we love your impact around the pitch and playing with ball in hand. That is a real point of difference for you so why not put you to loosehead where you can do that more for us and you are not having to worry about the scum as much or it being as big a burden on your game than going around the pitch? That was the essence of it.

“At the time Trevor Woodman was the scrum coach, another decorated individual in the game, another unbelievable loosehead in his day, so it felt like, ‘Why not try it?’ I moved over. I won’t say I never looked back because I have had to go back over to tighthead a few times and I can do that, but I played the majority of my career at loosehead and it was a good choice.”

McIntyre tips the scales at Sale at 122kgs, a weight he discovered at Wasps that was best for him in terms of power to strength ratio, being as light as he can without compromising his strength to get him through more work rate and the other demands that now exist for props. “Until they take away the scrum completely, you will have big props coming through. Look at some of the young boys at Sale, James Harper is 21 and north of 125 kilos already. That part of the physiology of a prop isn’t going to change but what they do now is they all can sprint.

“Props are more athletic, they are almost another back row. I remember I was 20 or 21 and it was the hooker who was looked at as another back row but now all the front row needs to be able to move. It was a novelty for me back then, there weren’t many mobile and fast props around. But the crop of props coming through now, there is definitely more focus on developing them athletically so they move well.

“There is a real focus on front row fitness being a point of difference around the pitch. Gone are the days when props hid around rucks and weren’t involved in the defensive line. You have to get off the line, you’re expected to make tackles and get up on your feet, reload and go again. The emphasis is still on your bread and butter set-piece work, but in terms of the work rate and output from the front row, the demands are more than they have ever been.”

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