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FEATURE Tom Roebuck: 'I've seen many, many times people jump the gun to play Test rugby'

Tom Roebuck: 'I've seen many, many times people jump the gun to play Test rugby'
2 weeks ago

Tom Roebuck has a new pair of trainers. These past few months, the muscular Sale wing has been strutting around Manchester in a fresh set of Nike Air Maxes, courtesy of the Sharks’ vibrant supremo, Alex Sanderson.

The shoes were promised to Roebuck should he score his first professional hat-trick and when the Chester thoroughbred shredded Exeter Chiefs in March, part of Sale’s stunning revival of a flat-lining Premiership campaign to claim their third semi-final in four years, Sanderson stumped up.

There aren’t many directors of rugby dishing out sartorial goodies. Even fewer who flout their personal endorsement deals to do so.

“When it happened Al said, ‘you know what you’ve just done there, don’t you? You’ve just won a pair of Air Maxes.’ I’d forgotten about the agreement,” Roebuck chuckles.

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Tom Roebuck scored a brilliant try in Sale’s Premiership final defeat by Saracens last year (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

“That’s who he is, the type of coach you want. He is all about building relationships and connections with players and he understands not one thing works for everyone. He’s got his own little ways of dealing with each player and he’s got it down to a tee.

“I don’t think he’s allowed to get Nikes next time because he’s got an Adidas sponsorship and I think Adidas were kicking off with him talking about Nike Air Maxes in the media. If I score another hat-trick, he’ll have to get me some Adidas ones.”

Roebuck could soon wind up with a whole new wardrobe, one not just housing his kicks, but festooned with international-issue gear. He has scored 10 tries in 17 league matches, won a call-up to the England Six Nations squad, and attracted serious interest from Gregor Townsend’s Scotland camp. Summer tours are looming and Roebuck will be in demand again.

The 23-year-old was born in Inverness, though he spent only the first three months of his life north of the border, and has no direct Scottish heritage which meets World Rugby’s eligibility criteria. His mother and father studied at the University of Edinburgh and enjoyed the city so much they decided to stay. His maternal grandparents lived in Kingussie in the Scottish Highlands, which is why Roebuck was born close to their helping hands.

But he has spent all but those very earliest days in Northwest England, wearing the rose at Under-17, U18 and U20 levels, and could fairly be described as an Englishman who, depending on your allegiances, had the fortune or misfortune to be born in Scotland.

It made sense to go to an England camp. They were the team I grew up supporting and I tend to come back to that, maybe that’s the reason I chose that route

‘Tug of war’ is a slightly grandiose term for the toing and froing which took place between the two nations last year. England had brought Roebuck into camp in autumn 2022. Scotland wanted him in the mix for their World Cup training squad. Sanderson suggested Townsend had dangled the carrot of selection for the global showpiece itself.

“There were never any hard yesses saying ‘you’re in, you’ll be picked’, but there were chats,” Roebuck reveals. They said, ‘would you be open to considering going down the Scotland route and getting into a camp? How do you feel about Scotland? We would love to see what you’re like and see if you want to get involved’. But there was never any, ‘if you say yes, you’ll go to a World Cup’.”

Roebuck has kept his cards close to his chest. He rebuffed some advances, concerned he would not be fully equipped for the Test game, or that he was not ready to commit totally to one country. He does not view his national identity with the same tub-thumping clarity as some players.

When Steve Borthwick sent for him ahead of this year’s Six Nations, Roebuck answered the call. He remains uncapped, and unwilling to close any doors.

“I put it on the back burner for quite a long time because I wanted to try and solidify myself at Sale and get to a level where I think I could actually compete. I’ve seen many, many times people have gone too early or jumped the gun and made a decision and it has not worked out for them. I wanted to be a top-class winger at Sale who can play Test rugby before I go on and do it.

Roebuck trained with England during the Six Nations, but it was Immanuel Feyi-Waboso who won his first national caps. (Photo by Dan Mullan – RFU/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

“I wanted to play international rugby. It’s not a deep-rooted decision. It’s probably just down to the fact it made sense to go to an England camp at that time. I didn’t expect to play, and I didn’t play, but I wanted to make myself better, put myself in a testing environment and playing for Sale, an English team, it made sense to go to an England camp. They were the team I grew up supporting and I tend to come back to that, maybe that’s the reason I chose that route.

“I’ve not really had the chance to think too much about [the future]. I probably don’t know and wouldn’t want to say something I’d end up regretting down the line. At this stage I just want to put myself in the best position to put my hand up for a cap.”

Nonetheless, his weeks with England were hugely invigorating. Roebuck stands around 6ft 3ins and weighs over 100KG. Under the high ball, he is one of the kings of the Premiership skies. With it tucked under an arm, he has learned to use his dynamism and heft to blast through soft shoulders.

“There’s no shying away from the fact my aerial game is what I’m trying to be the best at, and that was something we worked on quite a bit,” he says. “International games are very much based on defence and kicking tactics. Having a good aerial game is massive for them. They spend a lot of time focusing on that, especially Felix Jones, so there was a lot on attacking and receiving high balls.

He was a gobby b*****d. I remember every time my Cheshire side played his Yorkshire team or Sale academy played Yorkshire academy it was a bit of a tussle. I don’t think we became friends until we were 16-17 and we got to a camp

“With the way they’re going, it’s trying to get more touches and more attacking carries on the ball. They want all their wingers to do that. It was about, how can you try and work off your wing, pop up inside 10, outside 10, can you go further out off 12’s shoulder or out the back of the second pod and get hands on ball and dominate the carries you do have.

“A lot of the time it is mentally, you’ve got the physical attributes to do it, so you have to just think, I am going to run through the person, I am going to dominate this contact and not die with the ball, get your studs in the floor and keep pushing and make as many post-contact metres as you can.”

Sale’s rise, first under Steve Diamond then the inimitable Sanderson, has been built around a proud northern core. Local boys who know the club, what it means to its people and where it came from. In the same age bracket as Roebuck, Bevan Rodd, Raffi Quirke, Tom Curtis, Gus Warr, Arron Reed, James Harper, Ben Bamber, Sam Dugdale and Joe Carpenter have all emerged. The James brothers, Sam and Luke, are part of the furniture. So are Ross Harrison and Tommy Taylor. George Ford is as northern as they come.

“The fact there is about a third, maybe a half of that team who have grown up around the area, supported and played for Sale for so long, it brings us a bit closer,” Roebuck says. “We have a sense of understanding and familiarity and homeliness with Sale because we’ve grown up wanting them to do well.

“The South Africans and imports we have, understand and buy in to that culture. They know it means so much to us and they want to go all-in. That’s why they’ve done so well. The Du Preez brothers are a good example, they’ve bought into it and they’ve been here as long as I’ve been playing for Sale. The people we bring in are people we look up to. They inspire us to go on to that extra level. They are here for a reason and it makes it more special for some of the young lads growing up watching them.”

Roebuck and Carpenter have become firm friends and lived together for a time (Photo by Alex Davidson/Getty Images)

Carpenter is Roebuck’s closest pal, and among the Sharks’ most impressive performers since breaking into the team last year. The pair shared a flat in the city until their lease expired and they moved home to save some cash. But the feisty full-back and long-limbed wing were unlikely housemates.

“He was a gobby b*****d,” Roebuck recalls. “I remember every time my Cheshire side played his Yorkshire team or Sale academy played Yorkshire academy it was a bit of a tussle. I don’t think we became friends until we were 16-17 and we got to a camp and he was the gobby lad and I was the big lad who used to hate each other. We spoke to each other and thought, oh, you’re actually alright, I think I quite like you. It was quite literally like the scene from Stepbrothers – ‘did we just become best friends?’ It’s worked out well.”

Sale have required technical excellence and serious mettle to reach the play-offs once more. A run of four straight defeats left them eighth in late March, and in grave jeopardy of being cut adrift from the semi-final race. Their form was inconsistent, their play uninspiring.

Their pursuit of the top four since has been relentless. With no margin for error, they claimed scalp after scalp, five victories on the spin with try bonus points in four of them, culminating in a first win at the StoneX against the Saracens side who shattered their hearts in last year’s final.

“We related it to the Tour de France where even if you’re at the back of the pack, you can slipstream and drag your way up and still get in there for the final finish,” Roebuck says. “We had belief all the way through.

“We have spoken a lot about how last year felt to us. It was a massive achievement and we loved every second of it. What hurt the most was coming one short. How can we bring those feelings back with the limited time we have got left with this group?

“I grew up watching Sale and they were sixth, seventh, eighth. We were a mid- or lower-table team back in the day. It wasn’t the glitz and glamour of some of the southern teams who have done so well. To be part of a team now pushing and doing alright is testament to where the owners have taken it and where they want to be. All the hard work is paying dividends.

“We want to be that team who can be there consistently, whether it’s semis or finals or winning it. It is a mental shift we have taken.”

We are quite similar, with a lot of contestable kicking, heavy forwards who want to dominate you and win that gainline battle, and then they will take it to the backs and put on that magic which they do have

It was Bath, at the Rec, who punched Sale to their lowest ebb of the campaign. It is Bath, at the Rec, who stand between them and another tilt at the Premiership crown. That day, two months ago, the teams were level on 60 minutes. Bath blew Sale away in the final quarter to win 42-24.

There are parallels between the teams; the blueprint adopted by Johann van Graan is close to that Sanderson deploys. Mighty artillery up front. Carrying juggernauts galore. A world-class fly-half, Finn Russell, against Sale kingpin Ford. Power-packed midfields and rapiers out wide. Roebuck will come up against fellow England hopefuls Joe Cokanasiga and Will Muir, each of whom have had eye-catching seasons.

“The Rec is a hostile place to go with the amount of fans they get and noise they can create. The way we play and they play, we are quite similar, a lot of contestable kicking, heavy forwards who want to dominate you and win that gainline battle, and then they will take it to the backs and put on that magic which they do have.

“We know it’s same against same with the styles we play. It’s about coming out on top of every single one of those little battles. To me that is the contestable kicking especially against a guy like Will Muir, he is known for his kick-chases just as much as I am. It’s about how we can win every single little detail.”

Roebuck dazzled this time last year, scoring in the last match of the regular season, the semi-final and the Twickenham decider. The prize on offer for more predatory finishing remains immense. Greater, even, than box-fresh Nikes.

Comments

6 Comments
f
finn 20 days ago

Suspect it’s Roebuck and Sleightholme competing for one spot in the summer squad. Sleightholme probably has the slight edge, but if Roebuck dominates the air against Bath he could be back in it.

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