Alex Sanderson's first match as Sale's new director of rugby is on Friday night against Leicester. He explains what led him to call time on Saracens and his plans for the Sharks
Alex Sanderson – “I’ll still be standing on the touchline on match days”
If Sale were left in disarray by the shock exit of director of rugby Steve Diamond last month, it hasn’t taken long to brighten the mood. The signing of Alex Sanderson as his replacement has been hailed by Sharks fans eager to see their club recapture their glory years.
A former England back-row, Sanderson, 41, played for Sale and Saracens before embarking on a distinguished coaching career. In a variety of roles at Saracens, latterly forwards and defence coach, he presided over a period of staggering success that included three European Cups and five Premiership titles.
His departure from Saracens will be keenly felt. Ex-Sarries and Scotland lock Jim Hamilton called it “the biggest loss at Saracens bar an Owen Farrell or a Maro Itoje because of what he brings to the environment. He’s one of the most engaging coaches I’ve ever worked with. So, so positive when refocusing the team. From a Saracens perspective I’m gutted (he’s left).”
One of the most popular men in the game, Sanderson launches the new Sale era at Leicester on Friday night in round seven of the Gallagher Premiership. Here he tells Rugby World about his new job…
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“Leaving Saracens was the hardest decision I’ve had to make in my life. Even retiring was a decision made for me by a doctor.
I was in the incredibly fortunate position to be wanted by two very good organisations. There was an emotional wrench at leaving Saracens but a nostalgic pull towards Sale. I played for them, captained them, and every time I’ve been back there they treat me like I never left. Tickets for my wife, make me cups of tea. I’ve always kept a special place in my heart for Sale.
That’s on an emotional level. On a professional level, I was very excited about helping Saracens get back to the Premiership, about righting some wrongs. I wanted to prove some of the critics wrong who said it (Sarries’ success) was about money when that’s not the case.
But we managed to play out the (2019-20) season and there were some results and performances, Leinster perhaps being the main one, that exorcised some of those demons for me. On the back of that I was more open to opportunities than six months earlier.
Then Dimes (Steve Diamond) left and I went up to meet (co-owner) Simon Orange and (CEO) Sid Sutton. And I was bowled over really by their enthusiasm and their desire to grow the business, to push on. They have a really good squad and the training ground is something special, a former Premier League training ground. But it was their desire to start investing in a coaching infrastructure and the people, not just the players, which excited me.
It was an opportunity to take the next step in terms of progression of my own career. And for my family because my wife’s family are from up here as well. My son is four and a half, so it’s perfect timing for him (to uproot without school disruption).
My career will take a different direction now because the responsibilities increase away from the training field. But there are many different types of DoR. I’m not one to put on a suit and sit in the back room. I want to be on the coalface to feel what the players are feeling, to understand what they’re going through. I’ll still be standing on the touchline on match days – you get a better feel for the intensity of the game pitchside.
I don’t want to step on the toes of the good and established coaches we have. But I’ve coached most areas apart from the attack, so I can add detail that I think will be beneficial.
It’s not about bringing Saracens to Sale. It’s about improving the training practices and some of the methodologies to the betterment of the players. When you bring two perspectives from different organisations together, it’s always a learning process. Both ways. I’m learning as much as I’m giving, probably more at the moment.
It’s difficult to know why Saracens have a good track record for producing coaches because I haven’t been in any other environment. I have talked to other organisations – Melbourne Storm, the Crusaders, Richmond AFL – and they are similar to Saracens; they look after their own and promote from within.
Saracens put a high priority on the continuous development not just of players but staff as well. As a coaching group it’s a very open environment; the academy coaches sit in with the senior coaches, they take part in the session, they’re on board for the whole of their coaching journey. That mutual learning relationship is a big part of the Saracens culture.
From assistant academy coach right through to (DoR) Mark McCall, the development is there, and that’s something I believe in.
If we develop what we have in-house at Sale, you don’t need to recruit from outside. You get people a lot more indoctrinated in the culture of the club. Right now at Sale, we’re beginning to define who we are as a club.
The long-term game of where you’re going to finish in the league is not a motivating factor. It might be in the last few games when the end is in sight but not right now, it’s too far off. Brendan Venter came in at Saracens and turned them from bottom feeders to table-top diners within a season. And one of his philosophies, although there was selection rotation to create the best ambience in the squad, was to win every game.
Why wouldn’t you try to do that? So the aim at Sale is to win every game. Or at least to get in the right mental readiness to give ourselves the best chance of winning every game.
Because it’s about the process, not the outcome. If you do that consistently well, if you have a really good buzz and enthusiasm around the place, and get your practice spot-on, that will bring you consistency of performance so that you’re somewhere near the top of the table.
At the moment we’re not focusing on that, we’re focusing on who we are because Sale lost an identity with Covid and with Dimes going. It’s time for this group, coaches and players, to identify what team we want to belong to. And then we can have a look at our motivations and how we do it a bit down the line.
I’ve had a lot of calls from agents and I’ve told Sid, please tell them to back off. There are rumours about people staying or leaving and none of it is true, I haven’t spoken to anyone. I can’t turn my mind to long-term succession at the club when I haven’t sat down with every player individually to know what they’re about. That’s putting the cart before the horse.
No one’s going anywhere in the immediate future. Not until I’ve had those chats with all the players. The ship is steady. I want us to form some strong relationships first. Or not, and then it’s an easy decision, isn’t it?
There’s not a lot I want to change right now in terms of the processes, because I back the coaches, they’re good coaches. They effectively reached the top four last year, they just got Covid (which led to their final match being cancelled and the points lost).
So my main focus at the moment is our mentality. Our identity. What kind of team we want to be. Getting a sense of commonality, that’s what I enjoy doing and it’s what we need.”
A version of this column appears in the March 2021 issue of Rugby World. You can pre-order that Six Nations preview issue now.
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