'You're never going to find me at a lower ebb than I am right now... and I don't feel that low'
Alex Sanderson made a canny prediction when he arrived as director of rugby last month at Sale – that fans would see an initial burst of energy from his squad and then those levels would drop off and things would become a bit of a slog in the weeks after that. So it has proven.
Sale got off to a flyer with their new man at the helm, winning at Leicester and Bristol in his opening two games in charge. Since then, though, they have been beaten by Bath and Harlequins and they go into their Friday night game at home to champions Exeter knowing that another defeat will further hinder hopes of making the end-of-season semi-finals.
For Sanderson, it has been quite a baptism as a boss man after so many years working as an assistant at Saracens where the wins and the trophies kept coming around again and again before the club encountered salary cap problems and were packed off to the Championship.
Learning the ropes as a club figurehead has been an interesting experience and whatever about his squad’s currently waning energy levels after an initial spike, Sanderson was glad when RugbyPass asked him the other day how he himself was coping with it all as a new director of rugby having to quickly earn his stripes with the games coming thick and fast.
“Thanks for asking me,” he said when RugbyPass queried how he was feeling six weeks into his new gig in Manchester. “It is Tuesday, the worst day of the week, innit, and it is probably our longest, hardest day after a tough weekend.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) January 14, 2021
“You are never going to find me at a lower ebb than I am right now, quite honestly, and I don’t feel that low. I am still enjoying it. But as I said after the game (with Harlequins), the losing, if you can’t handle losing then you are in the wrong job.”
Whereas before those losses with Saracens came when he was a cog in the wheel, does losing feel any different now that Sanderson is the Sale boss and all eyes are on him in an era in the Premiership where the cult of the manager is all-encompassing?
“I guess the trick is not to (let it affect me). If it were just about me what a narcissistic, egotistical world you would live in. Then all the wins are down to me as well. The wins are no fun either as well by yourself, you want to share that and you share the losses.
“That was what I was so happy about coming in on Monday morning because I had my own ideas of what we did wrong but in putting the question to them [the players], they gave me the answers I already had.
“That’s gold that – that is when you are on the same page with the trust and the psychological safety of the players to feel that they are vulnerable enough to say what needs to be said without feeling recrimination or retribution which they are not going to get it here now.
“We’re here to find the answers and we had that on Monday and that for me empowers me. It gives me energy as much it does Manu Tuilagi coming out, as he did yesterday [Monday] unasked, giving me a cup of his coffee because he is a great barista. So a little selfless act like that gave me a little bit of energy yesterday.
“We have got a lot of good people in this organisation and I know it seems trivial that, but it’s those little things that drive an organisation in terms of its energy moving forward. Right now as you would expect there are no splinter groups, there are no people just looking after themselves, there is no one going into silos.
“It’s very much, ‘Right, this is where we are, what do we need to fix?’ We have got Exeter, who are European champions, on our own ground on Friday. That gives me energy just talking about it.”
And it's not just size.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) January 22, 2021
As a new boss, there is also a danger that Sanderson could begin burning the midnight oil, feeling he has to put more and more time in to find the solutions that will best make his Sale work. However, he has been conscious of not falling into that time-consuming trap, nudged along by a little help from home.
“I have got a four-year-old kid so I have got no choice. It is wrestle time when I get home at seven o’clock at the moment, straight into rough and tumble. Yeah, look that [time-keeping] is something I need to keep an eye on, thank you for asking the question.
“But right now as it is in trying to make the changes and it’s not massive changes but any changes, any lasting change, it takes a huge amount of effort so my wife and myself, I am fortified by the fact that as hard as I am working now and as much energy as I am giving now it’s not going to be forever.
“It’s going to be for a time until this machine gathers its own momentum and it starts to drive itself and I am just having to give everything I have got as everyone is to get it moving in the right direction initially.”
When Sanderson was at Saracens, their trophy-chasing rivalry with Exeter became a huge thing in English sport and he is hoping that some of this angst he felt when taking on the Chiefs will now play a part in him energising his Sale team to get stuck into the current Premiership champions when they visit the AJ Bell this Friday.
“I bring rivalry into every game we go into,” said Sanderson. “I just think that the edge in sport, as you saw in The Last Dance, is so important. For some of these guys who might have played 200 games and won World Cups, they need to feel an energy from me for an opposition that we have on a weekend.
“What is it, patience is a virtue and anger is a gift, so you need to cultivate anger where you have it. That is my take on it.”
— nemzy (@nemani_nadolo) February 25, 2021
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