So much for nerves. So much for feeling the pressure ahead of a big game. The mercury is edging upwards in England after early May’s false promises, but they’re not feeling the heat at Sale Sharks. In fact, Sid Sutton, the club’s chief executive, gives off a bonhomie more in keeping with a man about to head off on his hols than a man about to go to a cuticle-fraying Premiership final.
“Al was my first recruit and we’ve not looked back,” smiles Sutton, referring to the club’s director of rugby, Alex Sanderson, who has steered Sale to their first league final since 2006. “We’re on the same page, we have exactly the same vision.”
That vision, for the short-term at least, has a laser-focus on Saracens at Twickenham on Saturday, May 27. Saracens: the perennial winners, the table-toppers, the bookies’ favourite, the clinicians of the oval ball. Sale: empty-handed for too long, the there-or-thereabout-ers, the underdogs, the unknown quantity on Twickenham’s green and pleasant turf.
And while tribalism and geopolitics are generally to be avoided ahead of the annual English club jamboree at HQ, let us add: Saracens (London, the South) and Sale (Greater Manchester, the North).
As Sale have been reminding us all season, Northern Rugby Matters. The Northern Rugby Matters campaign is one that the club itself has initiated. Cynics might say that it pitches the club and the region as self-styled outsiders. Those same cynics might also say that hashtags and slogans on t-shirts only get you so far. But there is much to suggest that this is about substantially more than surface-level marketing and public relations.
All of which takes us back to Sutton’s point about vision.
The vision that he and Sanderson share does not fixate on which way the scoreboard falls on Saturday. The vision is grander and longer-term, and as much about community and values as it is about sport. Sale may yet lose in the final, but all will not be lost.
“It’s not just about this season but seasons to come, and about representing the whole of northern rugby,” says Sutton. “It can’t be just a one-off.
“It’s been a hard two or three years but we’ve built firm foundations for longer-term plans. It’s coming together off the pitch as well.
“Northern Rugby Matters is a phrase we came up with that other people have picked up on. It’s about working with clubs, communities, businesses. We have to be authentic. It’s about building an emotional attachment with supporters, not just in the North West but North Wales, Yorkshire and further afield. Northern rugby does matter and we can do it.”
Sutton is big on authenticity. The word “responsibility” recurs too. The club speaks in a language of ethics that is as much about being on a mission as it is about winning matches. And that mission is partly existential.
“The RFU are saying that rugby union may not grow in the next 10 years and there could be a drop off in schools here playing rugby,” explains Sutton. “So we have a responsibility to make sure rugby is taken into local schools and communities so we can produce the values of sport, enable people to be part of something, and give people a true purpose. That will be our responsibility and legacy.
We need boots on the ground and tangible engagement with communities. That’s of equal importance to winning titles and cups. We want to employ more coaches in schools, support the grassroots, and invite new audiences to come and watch.
Sid Sutton, Sale Sharks, CEO
“We need boots on the ground and tangible engagement with communities. That’s of equal importance to winning titles and cups. We want to employ more coaches in schools, support the grassroots, and invite new audiences to come and watch.”
Collaborating with and supporting Northern clubs lower down the rugby pyramid is squarely on Sale’s list of priorities. Sutton even ranks the building of authentic community links above that of finding academy stars-in-the-making. “That emotional attachment to the Sale Sharks that we want to build is now happening,” he says.
An hour’s drive north west of Sale, amid the genteel, leafy streets and promenades of Lytham St Annes, Sutton’s words ring true to a man who is something of a personification of northern rugby.
If Northern Rugby Matters, then Mark Nelson has for a long time been Northern Rugby’s Mentor.
Nelson was attack coach at Sale in 2006 when the Sharks won the Premiership under director of rugby Philippe Saint-André. Having held a list of rugby appointments in the north as long as Wade Dooley’s arm, he is now senior rugby consultant at National Two North side Fylde and senior men’s XV rugby co-ordinator at Lancashire. Nelson’s connections with the Sanderson family go back a long way, too; Alex’s brother, former England captain Pat, once shared a flat with him.
“Alex has recognised the need for Sale to re-engage with the North and the North West in particular,” says Nelson, his accent every bit as rooted in the region as his CV. “There is an affinity and that’s coming from Alex and the owner, Simon Orange, embracing the North West. And it’s deeds with Alex and not just words.
“Sale is strongly aspirational for players from clubs like Caldy, Fylde, Sedgley and Preston Grasshoppers. We did lose the affinity and it drifted but now there is certainly a flying of the flag and people rallying around that banner.
“Alex is intelligent, well-read, articulate and embraces other aspects of life – literature, film, business – in order to be more creative about the game. He’s no one-trick pony and looks for one per cent edges. There will be imagination and originality to his sessions and that will galvanise teams. He’s a complex, deep thinker but got articulate ways of getting over his ideas and providing clarity. And he’s never lost his northern roots. The assistant coaches are northern lads too, either from Union or League.”
Nelson sees shades of Saint-André in what Sanderson is doing in re-connecting with the northern community. And he sees a new generation of “idol” players who can take on the mantle of Charlie Hodgson, Jason Robinson and Sébastien Chabal from the Class of 2006.
But 2006 was a high-water mark for that group of players back then. This group isn’t at that water mark yet and I don’t think Alex or the players see it as all being over if they lose the final. If Sale miss out then they can go again.
Mark Nelson, backs coach for Sale in 2006
“With Philippe we had a French connection at Sale but he also recognised we needed a northern presence. It’s come and gone since Sale last won the Premiership, but Alex has got the essence of it. Some of the young players coming through have very strong northern connections, but there’s also been a strong South African overseas contingent. Alex has harnessed the North West but underpinned it with the overseas connection.
“A big pack, firepower out wide, George Ford pulling the strings – Sale are getting back to the vibe of 2006.
“But 2006 was a high-water mark for that group of players back then. This group isn’t at that water mark yet and I don’t think Alex or the players see it as all being over if they lose the final. If Sale miss out then they can go again. They’ve shown they can be in a final, and once you’ve tasted this fruit you want more of it.”
For a man vocationally restless for greater rugby success in the North, Nelson naturally sees room for improvement. He wants a longer-term view taken by Premiership clubs around the identification of talent in the North. Patience, he believes, can be the order of the day for player development at Sale and other top-tier sides.
“People come up at different rates, some develop at a later stage. I would like to see a real openness. If you don’t make it at Sale at 16, go and keep playing rugby at other clubs – Fylde, Grasshoppers, wherever. That’s the case across all areas in England.
Besides Sale’s 2006 title, there are other celebrated dates in the annals of northern rugby triumph. 1998 saw the Newcastle Falcons blindside everyone to win the Premiership straight after being promoted, propelled by the inimitable fusion of grace and power that was Inga Tuigamala. And back in the amateur era – like Titans from hazy Greek myth – there was the day in 1979 when the North divisional side beat the All Blacks. The 21-9 win by the regional representative side, whose pantheon included Bill Beaumont and Fran Cotton, was watched by a crowd so large at Otley’s Cross Green ground that spectators were perched on tree branches.
Some might say the branches of the game have withered in all kinds of ways since then, and Nelson himself is an advocate of reviving a North side; only this time it would be a professional side playing in the Premiership. Unlike a proposal recently put forward by former Falcons managing director and Sale CEO Mick Hogan, Nelson envisages such a side playing in addition to Sale and the Falcons.
The game is in disarray and it needs some radical thoughts. Why not rip up the perceived wisdom? All bets are off. It’s like the 1970s and punk rock. Music needed it. Punk just blew things apart and engaged young people.
Nelson claims English rugby in the 2020s needs a shake-up akin to the one punk gave music in the 1970s. He spells out his Punk Manifesto. The North could be an RFU franchise, run by the RFU, with 36 players and a link-up with a university. Its training base could be in Leeds, with games rotated around grounds in the North, including Cumbria.
“I think you’d be surprised at the affinity that would be there for such a northern side,” he enthuses. “It will take a lot of thinking, but it’s exciting and creative, new and fresh.
“The game is in disarray and it needs some radical thoughts. Why not rip up the perceived wisdom? All bets are off. It’s like the 1970s and punk rock. Music needed it. Punk just blew things apart and engaged young people. We need to recreate The North and recreate the game. Flogging the same dead horse isn’t going to revitalise it. We’ve got to break the London-based establishment and create some northern uproar.”
They are rousing words. But the revolutionary ardour is not everyone’s cup of tea.
Over at Sale’s Carrington HQ in south Manchester, Sutton believes any attempt to reincarnate a previously amateur concept into an elite reality overnight is misplaced. “It’s a pipedream if you think there is going to be an abundance of clubs in the North because we are not growing the game quickly enough,” he says. “It’s got to be growth from the bottom up, not the top down: from the grassroots up to the Championship, then the Premiership.”
But Sutton is bullish about rugby’s ability to grow in the North, despite the toreador flourishes of Premier League football that surround Sale.
“I don’t see football as a big issue. The rugby community in the North is big enough for us to sell out the stadium for home games. Football fans are of course fully welcome but they have already got that emotional attachment to their football club and it would be folly for us to try to persuade them otherwise. We’ve had clashes with Man United games but still got over 8,000 in.”
As the Sharks prepare for their biggest day in at least 17 years, there is a quiet confidence – but no sense of complacency – that they are preparing for the longer term too.
If we can help Sale continue on the road they’re on then we will 100 per cent do that because they are our big brother. It would give us a surge if they won the title: for Sale, for the North, for everyone.
Matt Filipo, Fylde chairman
Back in Lytham St Annes, Fylde’s chairman, Matt Filipo, is among those mulling over just what a Sharks victory might do for the region. A man with a heart-on-sleeves passion for the history and future of the game, Filipo is fearful that the current financial state of the game has necessitated many clubs to become more inward-looking and look after themselves first and foremost.
Yet he knows the bonds of northern kinship remain. “If we can help Sale continue on the road they’re on then we will 100 per cent do that because they are our big brother,” he says. “It would give us a surge if they won the title: for Sale, for the North, for everyone.”
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