As an 18 year-old whose memory doesn’t stretch back as far as 2006 my experience as a Sale Shark’s fan has been dominated by mid table obscurity and the revolving door of academy talents moving to the South in search of playoff rugby and England caps. In the last 5 years 4 academy graduates moved just to the London Wasps as Tommy Taylor, Kearnan Myall, James Gaskell and Rob Miller all moved to Wycombe to push for England selection. Furthermore, even Sale academy graduates who broke into the England squad while at the club, players such as Charlie Hodgson and Richard Wigglesworth, moved away to further their international careers, both moving to title challengers Saracens in 2010 and 2011 respectively. And who can blame them, a Northern team hasn’t won the Premiership since Sale in 2006 and the only other time before that was Newcastle in 1998. In addition, the England team is dominated by Southern players and players from Southern clubs, in fact, before Tom Curry the last Sale academy graduate to win more than 1 England cap was Mark Cueto in 2004! And yet, this week Sale did something I never thought I’d see in my life time and signed a seasoned England international, and not just any seasoned England international, a British and Irish Lion and arguably the best player in the world in his position, Manu Tuilagi. So how did Sale go from the Premiership’s feeder club to the club that many are labelling the odds on favourites to win the Premiership this year with a playoff spot all but secured and a squad teeming with marquee stars and internationals? These are the 3 steps of what I like to call, ‘The Steve Diamond Rebuild’.
STEP 1: RETAIN:
I mentioned in the introduction how Sale’s academy used to be a conveyor belt for other Premiership clubs and unfortunately although Bristol have proved that the English salary cap allows for a team of 15 foreign superstars, to win a Premiership, or even make the playoffs, you need competent backups to fill numbers 15-30. Therefore, it was vital that Sale were able to retain their academy graduates on cheap contracts. So in the same month that Mancunian’s Will Addison and Mike Haley left for Ireland in February 2018 Diamond re-signed fellow academy graduates Sam James, Josh Beaumont and Ross Harrison to multiyear deals. However, the big move came a year later when prodigies Ben and Tom Curry signed 4 year deals for reportedly, criminally cheap contracts. The key to this was to build a core of Premiership quality players that would be loyal and focused on performing well for Sale. Sale fans will argue that it is a travesty that the likes of James and Harrison haven’t been capped by England but this just means they are available and fit 12 months a year while teams such as Saracens and Leicester lose half their squad for 6 weeks every year during Six Nations season.
STEP 2: IMPORT:
Sale used to be known for signing over-the-hill veterans for short contracts at the end of their careers, think of Sebastian Chabal, Mike Phillips and Dwayne Peel. However, after building his core of academy players in 2018 Diamond started signing younger foreign internationals on longer deals so he could get 5+ years of them in their prime. Faf De Klerk joined as South Africa’s 2nd choice scrum-half and after a year in Manchester was the best scrum half in the world. He was quickly followed by Lions teammate Rohan Janse Van Rensburg and then by the raid of the Cell C Sharks with Oosthuizen, Van Der Merwe and the 3 Du Preez twins, Rob, Jean-Luc and Dan, all aged 26 and under. The South African invasion was completed with World Cup winner Lood De Jager and now Sale had stars who could win games, shown by them elevating to 2nd in the Premiership table after years of scrapping for top 6.
STEP 3: ATTRACT:
Which brings us back to this week as Manu Tuilagi travels up the M6 to Manchester. Sale are now winning games and playing eye-catching rugby to the extent where they can now attract England internationals to the rainy AJ Bell Stadium and so don’t be surprised if Tuilagi is now followed by others with double-figured caps to their name.
To conclude, rugby in England is often accused of being weighted in favour of the South, last year there was only 1 club out of 12 from the North in the Premiership and the England 2019 World Cup Squad of 31 players only included 4 from the North. However, from the ashes and from a recurring state of limbo Steve Diamond has built a formidable powerhouse in Manchester and with Newcastle back in the Premiership next season, may have just shifted power back to the North.