Sparkling Diamond a cut above: How Sale chief Steve has turned it around
It was arguably the transfer coup of the year and the most compelling sign yet that a revival is in full swing.
Last month, when Scotland lock and Lion-in-waiting Richie Gray agreed to join Sale, it confirmed the overhaul of the club’s reputation.
Several leading clubs in Europe had coveted the 22-year-old’s signature, but he opted for Sale despite a last-ditch attempt by Saracens to hijack the deal. He agreed to come because of the remarkable work done by Steve Diamond, director of rugby at Edgeley Park.
Coup: Sale have secured the services of Richie Gray
When the former Sale hooker came homelast December, he inherited a mess. Ex-All Black Mike Brewer had been dismissed as head coach after a brief, disastrous stint, stalwart fly-half Charlie Hodgson had made clear his desire to leave and he was not alone. Morale was shattered. Sale finished 10th in the Aviva Premiership; the year earlier it was 11th. Elite status was under threatand crowds were down.
Ayear on, Sale are revitalised. They are sixth, with Heineken Cup qualification the realistic target. When Newcastle visit Stockport on Monday, a sign of the times will be that there are different agendas – the home side looking up at the play-off zone with hope, the visitors looking over their shoulders at the trap door with dread.
WhatDiamond has done is comprehensively alter the mood. A raft of signings late last season, including Wales No 8 Andy Powell, was the start and the Gray deal moved the process on. ‘Nobody would have believed that Richie Gray would come here,’ he said. ‘On the day he signed, Saracens put another 100,000 on top of the total – straight up. So it’s not about the money. We had a good chat then I showed him around. I told himwhat we did for Bryan Redpath and Iain Fullarton, who came down from Scotland in previous years.’
Returning hero: Former Sale star Steve Diamond has revived the club”s fortunes
The over-riding theme is a shift in perception. Twelve months ago, there was a clamour for the exit. Sale still have a way to go to reclaim their status as title contenders, but they are on that path and taking care of business too, with increasing investment coming in and the possibility of a move to Salford City Reds’ new ground by the M60.
‘We’ve got a great set of lads and we’re looking to strengthen in one or two areas,’ said Diamond. ‘In the new year we will announce another signing. I don’t think we’re strong enough to challenge the top four, but a lot of people thought we were a laughing stock and we’ve changed that perception.’
Diamond’s belief was tested last month when his side threw away a 23-7 lead to lose at home to Exeter. He responded by casting doubt on the commitment of his players, especially those who had recently returned from the World Cup. He made them all write to him, outlining the qualities they would bring to the club from that point on.
‘To get the players thinking positively I’ve got a mate who comes in and helps. His name is Damian Hughes. He’s a psychologist who works for Richard Branson and with professional boxers, on how to turn things around when it’s going against you.
Positive thinking: Sale have improved markedly this season
‘He came in before Exeter and the lads didn’t know what to make of it, but they began to understand, to the point that he came in last Friday, said he would need an hour and after 13 minutes he said, “Right lads, that’s brilliant, see you in a couple of weeks”.’
Sale have responded in style to the Exeter capitulation, winning in Bath and at Agen in France, before beating the latter at home. After the Bath victory, Diamond showed the other side of his philosophy. ‘We went straight to an off licence, fat wallet came out, we filled the bus and had an old-school celebration, like we do sometimes,’ he said.
Diamond doesn’t just hope for a win against Newcastle, he believes it is a certainty. Then there will be a party, to keep fostering the new Sale spirit.
Looking ahead, there is ample cause for optimism.
‘I said at the end of last season, “Forget league positions now, they will say, in May (2012), ‘How the f*** have they done this’”. If we finish sixth, we’ll be in the Heineken Cup. We’ve got a new kit sponsor, a new main sponsor, a new team. If we get the ground sorted, that would be the icing on the cake.’