The day after Sale Sharks atomised the Scarlets in Llanelli, roaring into the Champions Cup quarter-finals with an irresistible blend of brutality and brio, Sam James was out in his garden, furiously scraping chicken faeces off the path.
“It keeps you grounded, literally sweeping up chicken shit after games,” laughs the towering back.
James is something of an outdoorsman. He lives in Woodford, a serene little spot on the southern fringes of Stockport, a couple of miles up the road from his home town of Wilmslow, a few more still from Salford and the AJ Bell. The country air seems to invigorate him, carrying away all of the stresses and angst that come with professional rugby.
“I’ve always wanted chickens. The back garden backs on to quite a few fields, so since I’ve got a bit more space, it became a realistic option and I got three of them,” he said.
“I don’t do too well in built-up areas; I like my space. I’ve got two dogs as well as the chickens, so it’s all about being outdoors, going on long walks and taking my mind off the game.”
He doesn’t care much for the spotlight. The mullet sprouting from atop his 6ft 4in figure will be sheared soon, mainly because a neighbour has clocked the unmistakeable barnet and put two and two together.
It wasn’t until I had the mullet that my neighbour stopped me and said, ‘Oh, you play for Sale Sharks’.
“I live four doors down from the guy; I’ve walked the dogs past his house every day,” says the 26-year-old. “It wasn’t until I had the mullet that he stopped me the other day and said, ‘Oh, you play for Sale Sharks’.
“I’ve been living here for two years now, we’ve not spoken a single time, but now with the hair… because it’s so recognisable, it will have to come off. I’ll narrow it back down and get it a bit shorter and tidier.”
Do not mistake the bashfulness for embarrassment. James is a Shark from the wisps of that mullet to the studs on his boots. As a boy growing up in Wilmslow, he feasted on the exploits of the titan Sale men of yesteryear.
When Mark Cueto, Jason Robinson and Sébastien Chabal handed out prizes at a school rugby festival, he felt as though God himself was draping a medal around his neck. His younger brother Luke is a 22-year-old rapier in the Sharks’ back three, another coming local man in a rapidly arriving team. And he was even a ballboy at the old Edgeley Park when the Cuetos and Robinsons and Chabals were storming to the Premiership title in 2006.
“It’s quite funny now, quite ironic. It is a weird thought, back then I never thought rugby would be a realistic pathway, it was just a bit of fun being so close to these great players I’d watch on TV,” he said.
“It adds to the whole ‘why’ for me to reach these final stages because I’ve grown up loving and supporting this team. I want to be in these games that are putting Sale on the map and winning trophies.”
This is his purpose, rooted in home pride, childhood awe and a fearsome comradeship. It is this ethos that Alex Sanderson wants to harness, since succeeding Steve Diamond as director of rugby three months ago.
The aim is to weave together a squad of local upstarts and high-calibre incomers, a home-reared core welded to a great wedge of Afrikaaner beef. “Northern grit and South African steel,” as the new gaffer puts it. When Sanderson arrived, bonds between team-mates tightened.
Coenie Oosthuizen is the most inspirational story for me. He didn’t have a comforting upbringing, he has overcome a load of odds to be a Springbok, let alone come over here and be a leader in our team.
“That ‘why’ is massive, and it’s something that, since Al started, has been on the agenda for the whole squad,” says James. “Not only your personal one, but listening to other people and finding out ones that work together, combining them all so we’re all fighting for that same reason why, and that their whys become our whys.
“There are loads of small details you never really take notice of in normal conversations. The challenge put forward is to try to get to know our team-mates better on that level.
“Coenie Oosthuizen is the most inspirational for me. He didn’t have the most comforting upbringing, he has overcome a load of long odds to be a Springbok, let alone come over here and be a leader in our team, really driving our standards. He took me aback most.
“It makes you appreciate him more. His rugby mind is quality as well. He’s a skilful payer, but I didn’t know how clever he was, how much he understands rugby and can put things forward for the team.”
Loads of northern players go down south to play their rugby for private schools or different clubs and we want to keep as many as we can and keep rugby strong up here.
Sale are festooned with Springboks, who have formed a South African enclave in Greater Manchester, but the story of the James boys is equally compelling. Sam and Luke are steeped in the place, as are the next crop of pups emerging, with rambunctious teenage scrum-half Raffi Quirke at the vanguard.
“Everyone dreams of becoming a professional player, so it’s massive for the kids to see a pathway through and boys from the local area doing well for the local team,” says James.
“Loads of northern players go down south to play their rugby for private schools or different clubs and we want to keep as many as we can and keep rugby strong up here.”
He still finds it trying to share a field with his brother. Luke is not as tall and rangy as his elder sibling, but has raw speed, devilish footwork and a bloodhound’s nose for the tryline. Sam feels the innate urge to shield and cajole, as well as the frankness engendered by such a close tie.
“We are each other’s harshest critics. But it has driven us on and helped us, an honest opinion with your best interests at heart.
“You do worry at the same time. You look at who he’s playing, you want to give him tips, and you’re more invested in that side of things. If a grubber gets put through and he’s trying to get to it, I’m always talking it through in my head as to whether he should kick, try to step, take it into touch, but I hope it dies down over the years as he keeps proving himself.
“It’s an older-brother protective thing. You don’t want him to get hurt, you want him to put his best foot forward. You know what he’s capable of and you want it to be shown on a field, in front of selectors and coaches. He has proven himself time and time again.”
In different ways, the boys are flourishing at Sale. James Snr is among the most consistent backs in the Premiership, a carver of great, loping line breaks, caresser of offloads and booter of deft chips and booming touch-finders. Primarily a giant outside centre, he can play at full-back or even fly-half. He made the league’s ‘dream team’ last season and is weaving some of his very best stuff this past year.
Early in his reign, Eddie Jones called him up for a summer tour of Argentina along with the Curry twins and Denny Solomona. He played against the Barbarians but never won a full cap. Four years on, England honours seldom enter his mind but, as a huge carrier, slick distributor, fine kicker and versatile customer, James should be firmly in the conversation.
“I’m further down the pecking order,” he says with quiet magnanimity. “A few centres are sticking their hands up ahead of me, if I’m being honest. Literally, my mindset is all about Sale, the success we can have here.
We don’t want to be a Leicester City, we want to be up there every single year, not just scraping it, but being comfortable like Bristol are at the moment.
“We’ve got a one-off invitation to progress in Europe, and the Premiership is massive for us, putting our names up there this year and being a force every year.
“We don’t want to be Leicester City, for want of a better phrase, we want to be up there every single year – and not just scraping it, but being comfortable like Bristol are at the moment.”
At last, armed with unprecedented financial muscle, Sale have made themselves a force. Last season was the first of his long tenure that Diamond could spend right up to the Premiership salary cap and the Sharks could have been semi-finalists were it not for a Covid-19 outbreak in their squad.
Since James debuted in 2012 – indeed, since the champion vintage of 2006 – that was the closest they had come to the play-offs. They had never finished higher than sixth, never made it out of their Champions Cup pool.
“One of the other boys involved with the club for a while said he’d played a certain number of games and not really done anything in terms of success. For me, that hit really hard,” he says.
“I played my 150th game this season and although I’ve been involved in some great teams and great games, we’ve not really won anything apart from the Premiership Cup last year. We’ve got the chance for the next 150 to be a real benchmark, ticking things off on the list of success, getting all the little things right so we can achieve the bigger things that I feel we should be achieving with the squad we’ve got.
“We felt very hard done by last year to miss out on that semi-final spot because of Covid-19, so it’s all about redemption for that.
“I’m massively excited. We’ve got every position covered, it’s on us now. We’ve got the facilities, the coaching staff, it’s all about how we can apply that now. The Scarlets game at the weekend was not a hurrah moment, but the final moment where we kind of clicked as a whole squad for the full 80 minutes. We’d been stressing building up to that as to how we can lift levels. That game is not our summit – it’s our benchmark, it’s the start of our climb.”
As first steps go, it was more of a giant leap. Having lost both of their pool matches, Sale barely scraped into the last 16. But a Scarlets team packed with Welsh internationals, Lions and Six Nations winners were eviscerated 57-14, a six-try monstering built on furious line speed and a ruthless attack. Sale were stampeding around in the West Walian sunshine like a herd of rabid buffalo and have set up an intoxicating quarter-final clash with La Rochelle in France.
It was all about taking their wings off them first, so they’re nothing but a lizard, and then the shark taking that lizard to deep water and drowning them.
Sanderson coins brilliant little mottos for each match, snappy phrases that tie together all the detail of the week. The previous Saturday, his players were encouraged to ‘Catch the Wasp in a jar’ against Lee Blackett’s effervescent side.
“With the Scarlets, it was all about the emblem of the dragon, and how good they are in the air, their back-three threats,” says James. “If you let them, they’ll play from anywhere, they’ve got a massive attacking threat and they’ve got fire.
“It was all about taking their wings off them first, so they’re nothing but a lizard, and then the shark taking that lizard to deep water and drowning them.
“We know knockout European rugby is the closest you can get to Test-match rugby. It’s all about improving from last week against a La Rochelle side who will pose a lot of different threats, lifting all those levels and growing as a team.”
Sanderson said recently that in qualifying for the knockouts, Sale had been given a golden ticket. At the moment, they are steaming towards the chocolate factory, chickens and all.
More stories from Jamie Lyall
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