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Sale and French club Bourgoin-Jallieu have much in common. Both are well established in the higher echelons of national competitions Sale will go top of the Zurich Premiership if they beat Worcester at home on Friday night but neither yet has the trophies to show for it. The peak so far for both has been winning (under the competition's earlier titles) the European Challenge Cup, a prize more consolation than glittering.
Philippe Saint-Andre, whom they also have in common, points to the important difference: “At Bourgoin there was not the ambition to do better. Here at Sale [club owner] Brian Kennedy is a highly successful businessman, and he wants the club to be successful as well, to get into the Heineken Cup, to win trophies and to be one of the top six or eight clubs in Europe, not just in England.”
That difference was why Saint-Andre, 37, was happy to become Sale's director of rugby in March: “I certainly did not come for the weather,” he points out. It is Saint-Andre's second stint as a Premiership coach, after his previous time at Gloucester. He is a singular man the only Saint alongside numerous sinners who have played for France, their most-capped wing with 69 appearances, 34 as captain. His 34 tries include the epic at Twickenham in 1991, matched for sheer improbability perhaps only by a score he initiated, the “Try from the end of the world” at Auckland in 1994.
Appropriately this epitome of French rugby festivity is a native of the town whose traditions inspired Emanuel Le Roy Ladurie's Carnival at Romans. But, like that masterpiece of history, Saint-Andre is rooted in earthier realities. He says: “While I was a winger, my best friends were always prop forwards. I know that if they are going forward in the scrums and the set-pieces are strong, we will be getting quality ball as backs.”
Forwards and fitness have been the priorities at a club better known for dashing back play. Major signings such as England prop Trevor Woodman, Argentine lock Ignacio Fernandez Lobbe and the French duo of back row Sebastien Chabal and hooker Sebastien Bruno add power and presence to copious but youthful home-grown forward talent.
The pre-season was tough: “We worked very hard on fitness for four weeks and went to France for a week to play games at Perpignan and Beziers. It was very good, it helped everyone get to know each other on and off the field,” he says.
Dismissive by virtue of personal history of theories that wings can't captain, he has given the shippers' job to Jason Robinson: “For me the captain is a leader. Of course the half-backs run the show on the field, but you want your captain to have charisma, to have the respect of players so they will listen to him in the changing rooms and to set a good example on and off the pitch. Jason is a star and a winner, a very good, totally focused professional. He provides the perfect image for the club and for the game.”
So far the formula is working. Leicester, Wasps and Saracens have been beaten this season, with the away victory over European champions Wasps the season's most eye-catching result so far. Next come newcomers Worcester, who are yet to win. Since Gloucester and Northampton, the other teams with 100 per cent records, meet on Saturday, any Premiership lead may be short-lived. But with a trip to Leeds, the other winless team, next week to be followed by a visit from poor travellers London Irish it would be no surprise if Sale were to go to Northampton on October 16 with six straight wins to their credit.
Saint-Andre, though, is anything but a chicken-counter: “I have a great respect for them and I know their director of rugby John Brain from working with him at Gloucester. They will be very tough and they play good rugby. But every game is difficult. It is good to win three games, but we should be humble. We have to be consistent and play well every week. The season is a marathon not a sprint, and it has only just begun.”
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