Sam James Exclusive: 'It has been a hell of a journey' - The 'heartbeat' of Sale Sharks is preparing to wave goodbye

After almost 250 games playing for his boyhood club, Sam James will leave Sale Sharks this summer
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The venue was Northampton Saints’ Franklin’s Gardens. It was the penultimate round of the 2012-13 Premiership season.

A jubilant home side had just racked up a 47-7 victory over Sale Sharks to guarantee themselves a place in the play-offs while the visitors were spluttering towards the end of a difficult campaign.

James Gaskell’s late consolation punctuated a forgettable 80 minutes for Sale, but the emergence off the bench of Sam James means that particular April afternoon will never entirely be discarded from the memory.

A 15-minute cameo from the then 19-year-old marked game number one of what James hopes will be game number 240 for his boyhood club after announcing this week that he will depart Sale at the end of the season.

“Never,” says James before pausing briefly. “I never thought I’d play nearly 250 games for Sale. I say it all the time, but I have had such a lucky bounce in terms of games. You’re happy to get one appearance for Sale let alone 200.”

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It is almost impossible to argue with James’ humility but accumulating nearly 250 games for one club doesn’t seem like a ‘lucky bounce’.

And judging by the reaction on social media to his impending departure from the North-West, that classic, humble response by James is outweighed by the outpouring of gratitude shown towards him.

“Yeah, I didn’t quite expect the love I was going to get,” James adds. “It was a nice feeling and made me pretty emotional at home seeing all the responses from players I’ve played with and of course the supporters. It digs it a little deeper for me and makes me properly sit back and think about this [playing for Sale] which I don’t really do too often.”

The time for reflection may come over the next few weeks when James confirms where the next chapter of his career will be but the decision to end his time at Sale was, unsurprisingly, made with a heavy heart.

“I think it was around New Year when I told the club I was thinking about leaving,” James tells TRU. “The owners have been massive in supporting me through any decision I have made. They have given me so much and hopefully I have given so much to them.

“They have made the club such a powerhouse that I know they will keep getting stronger and stronger. I am leaving them in such a good place.

“Hopefully they can understand my family and I are growing older now and I kind of want to see the world. I have always been one to explore and have that bit of adventure and it will be a new challenge for myself and my family. I am excited about the future but sad to leave such a great club behind.”

There will no doubt be sadness among the players and staff at Carrington but also for those who have followed James’ career from the terraces.

The bond between James and the supporters highlights his immense contribution to the club both on and off the pitch, and this has been forged by the man himself being Sale through and through.

“They [the supporters] have been such a big part of my journey,” James adds. “As I said in my open letter, they have supported me through tough moments they won’t know about and the highs and lows at Sale.

“They have been through thick and thin. They are some of the best fans in the league and I have come to know most of them personally so obviously we want to make them proud and make them happy.

“For me, I have been a supporter all of my life and that is not going to change now I am leaving. Even when I am 60/70 years old, I am still going to be watching Sale wherever I am in the world if not hoping to be at the games.”

Sale’s fans will have their own ‘Sam James’ moments which they will look back on with fondness, not least when he helped the club clinch the Premiership Rugby Cup in 2020 - their first major piece of silverware for 14 years.

And it was time for James to also take a short stroll down memory lane.

“Yeah, I would say the Prem Cup final as well," he says. "It was nice to give something back to the fans. Then up there is the Bristol game away in the Champions Cup [in 2022] when we went down to 13 men but still saw out the win. That was such a good game but with all of this, it is the people on the pitch that you play for.

“That kind of equates to memories off the pitch as well! Some of the games might not necessarily be standout games but I remember after some matches where we’d go into Didsbury [a suburb of Manchester] for a couple of drinks and some of us would be doing 'The Beatles' pose in the middle of the road for example! Just stuff like that!

“Honestly, there are so many times that you look back on where…you know, you have made good friendships off the back of those things no matter what they are!”

And what about a favourite try?

“I said in my open letter my first against Northampton and then away at Toulon [in January 2017]. Both chip and chases.

“I had a good conversation with our old kicking coach Jon Callard about me opening up a ‘chip and chase shop’ and then just turning it into a chip shop!

“He always used to say; 'never serve chips to yourself - you will get too greedy.' You always try and chip for someone else! They soon died out as I did a couple which didn’t end up too well so I am glad I got the few in right at the start!”

The 2018-19 season might also be a highlight for James. That term, he was arguably the focal point for Sale as he played every minute of their Premiership campaign. He was then named in the Premiership Dream Team in 2019-20.

So after 12 years at the club and 236 appearances, James has decided to begin a new adventure away from the Salford Stadium but he is hoping for the longest possible goodbye with Sale still targeting a top-four finish.

The Sharks' pursuit of a play-off place resumes on Friday night against Leicester Tigers where James’ adoring supporters may see him run out for the final time.

However, he is keen for that not to be the case.

“I’ve thought about how I might feel on Friday,” says James, who is set to start at full-back. “We have been doing goodbye speeches for the boys that are going and Manu’s was Wednesday. They described Manu as obviously a great guy and that he has time for anybody - no matter how big or small you are - and that resonated with me just because of Friday night.

“Obviously, it could well be my last time running out at home but I see it as a chance to try and get some time back with teammates and the fans. If we keep winning, we might get more time with the likes of Manu, the boys that are moving on. So whilst I am sure it will be emotional, I do see it as an opportunity to kind of put our foot down and cement our space closer to that top four.”

If it is to be Sale’s last home game of the season, it will be a challenge for James to swerve the limelight in what will be an emotion-fuelled farewell.

As they were for his 200th appearance for the club, James’ family will be in attendance, including wife Ruby, son Arthur as well as Mum and Dad - Julie and Neil - who flew back from their holiday in Costa Rica on Thursday.

“They were never going to miss it for the world,” James says.

“My Mum and Dad were actually annoyed at me, though! For a joint birthday, Christmas and 30th wedding anniversary present, I sent them on holiday for two weeks. I think they were more angry at me that they were missing a couple of games than happy they were going to Costa Rica!

“Honestly though, words can’t describe how much support they have given me over the years. I can’t thank them enough. Ruby and my family are all coming up so it will be nice to share a few moments on the pitch with them afterwards.

“I suppose the double-edged sword is you have got to get the win first and make all of those moments happy ones otherwise I will be in a proper mood if I know that my last game here is a defeat! It [James' time at Sale] has flown by but it has been a hell of a journey."

Of course, the fairytale ending would be for James and Sale to make it to back-to-back Premiership finals but whatever happens, the boyhood fan who made his dreams come true will always be held in the highest of regards.

"He is and will probably always be, the heartbeat of this club,” said Sale Director of Rugby Alex Sanderson. That, in itself, speaks volumes about the player and person the Sharks will be losing this summer.

The collage of pictures on the club's Instagram account which went alongside the announcement of James’ departure simply ends with the word ‘legend’.

And you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone affiliated with Sale Sharks who disagrees with that sentiment.

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