Tom O’Flaherty Exclusive: ‘I wouldn’t come here if I didn’t think we could win titles’

Tom O'Flaherty has scored two tries in two games for Sale Sharks following his move from this weekends opponents Exeter Chiefs
©Sale Sharks

After scoring two tries in his first two Gallagher Premiership games for Sale Sharks, Tom O’Flaherty is preparing to take on his former club Exeter Chiefs this Saturday.

It is just minutes after the 28-year-old’s final training session of the week that TRU speak to the wing. He has trotted up the stairs to take a seat next to me, taken off his boots and is resting his feet on the seat in front.

Already he seems at home and giggles to himself from time to time as some of his teammates practice some kicking just meters away, the hum of the lawnmowers accompanying the cars and lorries on the M60 that towers above the stand in front of us.

In their opening two matches of the new season, Alex Sanderson’s Sale have shown us plenty to like. Beating Northampton Saints in their opener and then Bath seven days later despite playing 73 minutes a man down following Nick Schonert’s early red, after their first bye week of the campaign, the men from the North West head into this weekend’s fixture fourth in the table.

For O’Flaherty, his opposition on Saturday are familiar faces. For five years, the wing called Exeter Chiefs home, making 97 appearances for the Devon-based club and he crossed the try line on 35 occasions in the process.

“I am excited,” O’Flaherty told TRU. “I think it will be, I don’t know, it is another game, obviously, but with a bit of added spice playing against your old club. I am excited. I think it will be a physical game, a carrying game honestly. Exeter like to keep the ball in play quite a lot so it should be a good one.

“Don’t get me wrong, there is an element of wanting to get one over your old club and your mates. There is that. It is a bit more personal, but at the end of the day it is a long old season, and it is another game of rugby in a long season of rugby.”

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During his time on the South West coast, all but one of his seasons ended in a Premiership final with Exeter clinching the the domestic and European double in 2020.

A prolific period for the club under the guidance of Rob Baxter, O’Flaherty grew into one of the most lethal back three players in the English top-flight. Rubbing shoulders with England internationals and British and Irish Lions, as well as being regular title contenders, raised his stock further.

His signature would have surely been sought after, but signing on the dotted line for Alex Sanderson’s team was a real signal of intent from the club who finished sixth in the Premiership last term.

One of just five new arrivals in Greater Manchester, they will all add plenty to the club’s hunt for the top four. England internationals George Ford and Jonny Hill were recruited, the latter coming with O’Flaherty from Chiefs, while Jason Woodward moved to the AJ Bell after five years with Gloucester and Joe Simpson joined on a short-term deal.

Having to also contend with the losses of Faf de Klerk, Lood de Jager, JP du Preez, Rohan Janse van Rensburg and AJ MacGinty, Sale’s unbeaten start likely becomes more valuable. With belts tightened following the reduction of the salary cap to £5m, it has meant that there have been plenty more outgoings than incomings this off-season.

As a result, Premiership teams are operating with reduced numbers and will rely on their Academy more. At Sale, there is plenty of talent across the board with the likes of Tom Roebuck and Luke James ably supported by the rising stars of Arron Reed and Joe Carpenter to name but a few.

That strong Academy structure has seen Tom Curry, Ben Curry, Bevan Rodd, Ewan Ashman and Raffi Quirke gain international honours, while Ross Harrison and the James brothers – Sam and the aforementioned Luke – have racked up club appearances in the hundreds.

The signing of Manu Tuilagi was a coup in 2020 and with the Sharks still waiting for Ford to return from the Achilles tendon injury he sustained in the Premiership final, it is likely that Sale are only going to improve as the season continues. 

In his five years at Sandy Park O'Flaherty made 97 appearances and scored 35 tries
©Sale Sharks

With this in mind, it is no suprise Sale have been long-touted as a team ready to make the leap. This has come as a result of a sixth-place finish in 2021-22, just a year after the club reached the Premiership semi-finals.

Ahead of this campaign, in an interview with The Telegraph, Sanderson admitted he thought he "was better" than he was despite being just five points off the pace last term and displaying the motivation to take Sale forward and push for silverware once more.

“When I spoke to Alex [Sanderson], I liked what he is trying to build,” O’Flaherty said. “When I was talking, they already had signed George [Ford] and Jonny [Hill], and from playing against them over the years, they are a very physical team. They have always been a hard team to play against.

“I thought it would be a good place to come, a good city and I think we are hopefully building something good up here. I wanted to experience something new, and I just think it is a dynamic period of your life so why not maximise all the opportunities that are given to you?

“I am just looking to enjoy the next three years here. I wouldn’t come here if I didn’t think we could win titles and stuff. I am just looking forward to be part of a group that does that again.”

Playing in front of that bruising Sharks pack and in a staunch defence is certainly going to have its benefits. Retaining the ball and the half-backs distributing it quickly – something that will only improve when Ford and Quirke return – will open up space for O’Flaherty and the rest of the backs to get over the whitewash.

But while he confirms that he enjoys dotting down, he is also quick to point out that for the modern wing, there is plenty more to the game.

O'Flaherty says there is some 'added spice' playing against his old club on Saturday
©Sale Sharks

“Sometimes you score tries,” he said. “Sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you are on the end of them, sometimes you are not. I probably care more about the impact you have on a game.

“I think as a player you know the impact you have on a game. I’d rather have a good game where you’ve worked hard, made some good contributions than done nothing and scored a hat-trick. It is obviously nice to score tries, but it is not something I hang my hat on.

“That’s just the way it is. Defences are good now. The middle third of the pitch is what a lot of teams are trying to win. If you get turned over or give a penalty away, you are in your own 22, defending.

“In order to win that middle third of the pitch and people might find it boring, but it is kick-chase. I suppose the 50:22 rule maybe opens up some more opportunity, but a lot of it now is just chasing kicks, trying to win ball back and making tackles.”

Watching Exeter take on Harlequins last weekend would have no doubt given Sale some form of confidence. Although Chiefs won the game at Sandy Park 43-42, they surrendered a 31-7 lead after the break before Christ Tshinuza’s late try secured a dramatic win.

The victory showed plenty for the Sharks to exploit, but also a stark warning that Baxter’s side have the capability to be lethal when it counts. For Sale, success in front of their home crowd will go a long way to continue building momentum for a club that wants to be competing for trophies this season.

Having already stated his own personal desire to add more winners’ medals to his collection, O’Flaherty gives a short, but sweet answer, to the final question of the afternoon; What are you hoping for this weekend?

“A win,” O’Flaherty said. “Any win. Exeter are obviously a very good side so a win.”