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'You have a drink, the veils drop and they get to shoot at me'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)

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With a big Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final on the horizon next weekend away to Racing, Sale director of rugby Alex Sanderson has been making the most of some recent bonding experiences with his coaching staff at the Sharks. It was January 2021 when the ex-Saracens assistant came home to Manchester to take over following the sudden departure the previous month of the long-serving Steve Diamond. 

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Sanderson arrived in the door determined to be his own man. He opted not to bring in an entourage of his own people, as happens in numerous other rugby set-ups. For instance, look at how the duos of Rassie Erasmus-Jacques Nienaber, Declan Kidney-Les Kiss and Johann van Graan-JP Ferreira appear to be joined at the hip over the years. 

Instead, he was happy to inherit the coaches that were already in situ at Sale, the likes of Paul Deacon, Dorian West, Mike Forshaw and Pete Anglesea. Sixteen months later, they are a group that is still very much intact and the Bradford Bulls lineage provided by head coach Deacon and back coach Forshaw has only been strengthened with Jamie Langley coming on board as a peak performance coach.

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With the season in England so relentless, getting to know his people while on the job has been the main way that Sanderson has learned over time what his staff are like. However, there has been scope to find out more in recent weeks. Following their Champions Cup win at Bristol, the staff were whisked away on a jolly to Barcelona at the behest of the club for some invaluable R’n’R. And they also had some time out again this weekend, heading along with their wives to the function held on Saturday at Leigh for Rob Burrows.  

So what has it been like for Sanderson to build these bonds with his staff at Sale? “You are best off asking them,” he quipped when quizzed by RugbyPass on how he has fared in the last year and a quarter in moulding a backroom that can give the Sharks every chance of succeeding on the pitch and being a success in the Sanderson era. 

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“Let’s start with trust, a big factor in the relationship. Trust is the main thing that can define a relationship whether you like someone or not. Trusting them and (making sure) that is strong comes down to the three Cs, the communication, their character and their capability. They are very capable coaches, very capable. The character, you can’t question the characters given what they have done in the game when they played and their character from a coaching perspective is without question. 

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“It’s only the communication, which is an incremental thing, that you have to forge over time and that builds trust, you are willing to trust each other more and that is why we went away (to Barcelona). It’s alright in this environment (the Sale training ground), we are getting on really well and feel like we have got a degree of psychological safety but as soon as you have a drink, the veils drop, don’t they? The facade drops and then you get to see what people are really like. They get to shoot at me stuff that they probably wouldn’t have said in-house.

“I find that a really strange thing because I grew up with those lads and I don’t want to mention the S-word (Saracens) because I have said it enough, but I grew up with those lads and knew them for 20 years. There was never a bad conversation or a heated conversation that would drag and despite me having that title of head coach over there (on the trip to Spain), it wasn’t like do as I say and they did. It was linear management, a discussion and I just collated the information to a large degree.

“It is different, that is what I found (being the boss). A perception that comes with the title is if the boss eats bananas you eat bananas, all those cliches ring true. There is also that thing about people that is psychological – when you inherit a title, you become the title. I don’t want to and still don’t want to change my management style from what I know works, which is one of collaboration.

“That bonding experience that we had, and we are going to Rob Burrows charity do this weekend at Leigh Centurions which will be very interesting with all our wives, all of that trust, all of that friendship is good in a working environment. I know we can still get better as time goes on. 

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“I hoped that I could fast track the ten or 20 years that I had in my last organisation to somewhere closer to two or three which we have to if we want to achieve things here because it is always my ambition to evolve, not revolve. I want to bring it on as I grow as opposed to bringing someone which is the easy option.”

What has Sanderson learned most in his 16 months in charge at Sale? “I can always definitely be better delegating. The neuropsychologist that came in is coming in again next week. He spoke to us about how every conversation that you have, the outcome of which is never neutral. It is never, ever neutral. 

“Even if it is taken slightly positive or slightly negatively, it is always going to be one way. There is no conversation that you have that sits on the fence and as a director of rugby, I am now more aware of that than I ever was.

“It kind of stops you enjoying what you do sometimes because an off-hand comment or something said in jest or you don’t see someone and greet them in the right manner because you might be on the phone or have something on your mind, it sits with them more than it would have done if I was just a work colleague or if I wasn’t a director of rugby. It makes you more aware of your engagements with people because you have a bigger gravitas I guess.” 

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