Alex Sanderson - The player, the coach, the leader and now the figurehead of Sale Sharks

Alex Sanderson has guided Sale Sharks to their first Premiership final since 2006
©Sale Sharks

Tom Curry pauses over Zoom, thinking about his reply to how Alex Sanderson has guided Sale Sharks to their first Premiership final in 17 years. "With Alex, his ability to see deeper than a game of rugby is really important and what it boils down to," the England international says.

"There are little bits that make a huge difference later on down the line and in the week. I think his meetings are brilliant. It is not taking down notes and taking down masses and masses of detail which can cloud you. It's simple messages that are brought over in a great way to which the lads can relate to."

Clarity of thought and focusing on the bigger picture - has the Sale Director of Rugby always been this way?

"I think with Alex, the reason he is like that is because he has got an inquisitive mind," Sanderson's former teammate at Preston Grasshoppers Gareth Dyer tells TRU. "I remember talking to him a long, long time ago when he was transferring from playing to coaching because of his injuries. Anything where he thought he could get a little bit of different information he could then use, he would.

"That is what sets Alex's man-management apart. He was even doing that as a 16,17, 18-year-old before he was coaching. Alex is obviously extremely interested in the little edges that you can add that will get more from that individual.

"When you get an individual like Alex who can always look at the bigger picture and understand how things come together, then providing that you give these individuals time and you back them, then you generally find those are the most successful guys. Having followed Alex closely since he moved into coaching and having heard feedback, this is a guy that clearly has the bigger picture in mind all of the time and it is probably why Sale are where they are."

Back in January 2021, Sanderson spoke to the media for the first time after becoming Sale's new Director of Rugby and the words of Curry and Dyer only reinforce what the man himself said at the beginning of his tenure: "I am going there [to Sale] to build something that's lasting, that transcends accolades..."

The galvanising impact the former Saracens forwards and defence coach has had on the Sharks has carried Sale to the edge of their first title since 2006. The shiny piece of silverware that Sanderson could be lifting at Twickenham on Saturday at the expense of his ex-employers - while incredibly significant - would certainly fall under the bracket of "building something that's lasting."

Before returning to his North-West roots, Sanderson enjoyed a trophy-laden career at Saracens and the mindset and mantra he now exudes in the colours of Sale was exactly the same during his 17 years in the capital.

"One thing that resonated with me, and it was certainly something that Alex delivered but of course would have come from the coaches, was just around the fact that it is not just about winning a trophy," says Charlie Hodgson, who won two Premiership titles and the European Cup with Sanderson at Saracens.

"There is a much bigger picture to it. It is also about your families, the memories, the achievements off the field that players have. There is so much stuff to it and Al is a really good person to be central to that.

"Don't get me wrong, Mark [McCall] [Saracens' Director of Rugby] is, and will continue to be, an unbelievable figurehead of Saracens and led that group of coaches amazingly well. Alex contributed an unbelievable amount to achieve what we achieved as did Paul Gustard, Joe Shaw, Dan Vickers, Ian Peel, Kelly Brown, Adam Powell etc.

"You could reel of these people and Alex of course was a really, really important cog and the learning he has done from that, he has taken it on and now delivering things in his own way with Sale."

That ability to think about the wider picture and what contributes to success is a strand of Sanderson's 'rugby IQ' which was noticeable even at the age of 15 when he was at Kirkham Grammar School. The rugby programme at Kirkham, headed up by Brian Gornall and later Aled Trenhaile, has earnt a reputation for developing young talent with the likes of Richard Wigglesworth and others progressing through their ranks.

Sanderson followed brother Pat to the Lancashire institution and instantly made an impression: "I took one look at him and thought this guy has got something," Gornall says. "What stood out for me was he listened to advice. He trained so hard but he improved so rapidly because he would listen and that focus is what you can see now. He gives it 100 per cent all of the time."

Sanderson was already displaying the game intelligence and the leadership qualities that many are seeing shine through at Sale: "You could see he was developing fast as a player and as a leader," continues Gornall. "He played for England U16s and he was the pack leader.

"The next year, he was the vice-captain of the first team at school and then really, he was the inspirational force in that team. You normally always give the leadership roles to the guys in the year above but he was the inspirational leader.

"We went to Twickenham that year [1997] in the Daily Mail Cup final and we lost narrowly [23-12] to Colston's and the year after, he was captain. He is a natural leader. People follow people like that."

Sanderson went on to skipper Lancashire U18s and represent England Schools U18s before he joined Sale as a player, where he became captain at the age of just 20: "Funnily enough, we played against each other at schoolboy level," says Hodgson who also played alongside Sanderson at Sale and England. "I was playing for Yorkshire U18s and he was captain of Lancashire U18s. He was a man mountain!

"I had the luck of joining him at Sale a couple of years later where he became the youngest Premiership captain. In that first year that I joined, we certainly didn't have the strongest of results but Alex had penned a letter.

"He wrote it and read it out to the squad and it was so heartfelt and so emotional about what he wanted and what he expected and I couldn't help but be inspired by him. This guy was only a year older than me - so like 19 or 20 - but here was this guy leading a bunch of men who have been around the block and 'he's giving it to them' but really authentically like he always has done.

"Leadership goes with him wherever he goes. Even at my time at Sarries, I just seem to remember one of his biggest things - not just his ability to coach - it was his preparation that went into speaking. It might have been one lunchtime when the boys were relaxing in between sessions, you would see Al pacing up and down outside.

"I remember asking him what was going on outside and he went; 'It's all about preparation. I just want to make sure I get my bit right in the meeting. I want what I say to the players to be bang on.'

"As a coach, you are there to get the best out of other people and Alex is unbelievably diligent. He is a thoughtful person and does put a lot of time and effort into thinking how he gets the best out of his players."

His passion and determination to succeed both as a player and as a coach also rubbed off on Dyer while current Saracen Mako Vunipola didn't downplay Sanderson's drive to be the best.

"As we got into the Colts age group at Hoppers, Alex was playing up two years," Dyer says. "We had a sort of 'golden' period where Hoppers won the Lancashire Colts Cup three years running and I remember we were hanging on against Waterloo one year. He was on the bench with myself and Steve Borthwick. He came off the bench and he made what I still think - and people who were there that day still think - was probably one of the best try-saving tackles you've ever seen.

"He was never fazed. He always wanted to set the agenda. He was already more than capable of handling that environment and that level of physicality which I suppose when a few years later, he was captaining Sale's first team, shows how good he was."

"To have the opportunity to work with him at Saracens for so long was a privilege," Vunipola adds. "He's a man that wears his heart on his sleeve. He will have a calm demeanour on the outside but on the inside, you know that his heart is pounding and he is feeling everything on the field. We always knew here at the club how special he is as a coach and as a person."

While clearly being a ferocious competitor, Vunipola also recognises the importance of the personable side to Sanderson which he and England teammate Curry highlight: "He has been great for me," Vunipola continues. "Before he's even a coach, he's a great person. Me and Alex started working together when I was 16/17 and he was the first one to kind of give me a bit of confidence that I could play at the highest level.

"Having been around a lot of them [Sale's players] at England camp, they can't speak highly enough of Al and what he has done to the team. That speaks a lot about his character."

"I think first and foremost it is that support aspect [with Sanderson]," Curry adds. "I think just having a relationship with him is brilliant. I remember the first time I probably had a chat with him, it was at our own house with me and Ben [Curry]. I thought that was pretty cool and it has just built from there.

"He treats us both very differently. Speaking on Ben's behalf here, Ben really thrives on that side of [the game] in terms of being 'on it' whereas for me, it is taking more off it so I can just kind of play. From that regard, I think Alex has been extremely clever and we have learnt a lot about ourselves in having him be like that. We are very appreciative of that."

And it is that thoughtfulness and desire to have a positive influence on those around him which is becoming more apparent outside of Sale's first team bubble.

Referring back to Sanderson's opening media conference as the Sharks boss, he said he wanted to 'build something that people can be proud of, years down the line, players and coaches alike' and one could argue elevating Sale's profile in the North-West is almost certainly part of his vision for the club.

Dyer recites a story of friends Ade Jebb and Craig Steel [colleagues at Preston] visiting Sanderson when he was at Saracens: "He made them feel like a million dollars. Of course, the Hoppers relationship was there but everyone at the club took a genuine interest in what our guys were doing rather than putting a load of fake interest on."

And Sanderson has very much applied that approach back home in the North-West: "I spent a day at Sale in their build-up to the Cardiff Blues game back in March," says current Preston Grasshoppers head coach Dan Orwin. "I spent time with Alex and he was a really impressive guy. He’s huge on culture and connections.

"I honestly cannot speak highly enough about the work Sale are doing. The culture and environment is second to none! The link with Hoppers and Sale is very strong too. We’ve had two Sale dual-registered players with us all year and the players and support from Sale has been great."

Orwin and Preston's link fits neatly under Sale's banner of #NorthernRugbyMatters. The club have made it their goal 'to increase awareness and celebrate rugby in the region' and the Sharks sit right at the tip of that.

The hashtag was plastered across Sale's semi-final against Leicester Tigers, culminating in a sell-out crowd at the AJ Bell Stadium, and both Dyer and Gornall recognise the impact Sanderson - and the club - can have on their part of the country.

"I think it is a great initiative," Dyer says. "I am somebody who has very, very infrequently gone to watch Sale Sharks. There were many times where I could've jumped in the car and gone and watched or I've gone and just felt disconnected. It didn't feel like a club that spoke to me in some respects.

"I just think getting the 'Alex blueprint' stamped across as much as you can of North-West rugby, I'd be really interested to see how much the game could fly from there because I just think the strength and personality that he will bring - which he is already clearly doing - could be huge.

"He said how emotional he was at seeing the ground sold-out for the semi-final and recognising it could be a seminal moment for rugby in the north and I hope that it is. It gives the rest of the club game a bit more profile and we can then see it not just as a one-off, short spell of success but sustained success."

"Alex's impact and influence is good to see," adds Gornall. "I can remember when northern rugby and the North-West in particular was the real heartbeat of the country. We have lost a lot of players in this area in the last 20 years and this is the chance for Alex to turn the tide and for the club to sell the game more in the North-West. The thing is, Alex cares. He really cares."

That 'turning of the tide" will of course be enhanced if Sale can bring the title home on Saturday. Hodgson played an integral role in the Sharks' last success at Twickenham in 2006 as his 23 points helped them to a 45-20 victory over Leicester.

"Alex is all about making memories for the people," Hodgson adds. "#NorthernRugbyMatters and it does. In my eyes, Sale have been a sleeping giant and I just feel that Al is the right person to take that club forward because he does have those roots at his heart.

"You have got such a big football-dominated region. You've got Rugby League with Wigan and slightly further out St Helens and so it is really hard to compete. The important thing is for Alex and the team, whether the result goes their way or not this week, it is just important they keep building on what they are creating.

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"There is huge potential and I just really want to see them do well not just because I am northern but mainly because of what I experienced there and because I played there for a number of years."

Hodgson lifted the title with Sale on May 27th 2006 and exactly 17 years on, the 'Class of 23' will be looking to do exactly the same.

"[Reaching the final] is special," Curry says. "Moments like Sunday [the semi-final] and moments like Saturday, you see the fans, the old ones, the young ones, people who have supported the club way longer than I have been alive and to see how much it means to them, I think that is the special part. Staying true to ourselves is really important."

When entering a final, not many people can be held in such high regard by both teams but Alex Sanderson seems to be an expectation to that rule.

Listening to some of the old coaches, teammates and players he has worked with, the underlying theme around Sanderson is one of transparent leadership and a thirst for success both on and off the pitch.

Both personally and collectively, he has achieved a lot in the game and as Dyer says: "Ultimately Alex should be proud of what he has done so far but I know he will only be totally happy if Sale win on Saturday. That is the way Alex has always been."

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