History repeating itself for Sale Sharks class of 06

History repeating itself for Sale Sharks class of 06

Mark Cueto spent his entire career with Sharks and scored the opening try when they won their first, and to date only, Premiership title 17 years ago.

The England and Lions winger was part of an exceptional crop of players to come through the Sharks academy at the turn of the millennium, forming the foundation of the team that went on to lift the title in 2006.

But if local talent was the starting point, then Philippe Saint-André’s recruitment of some international star dust was the secret ingredient that turned potential into silverware.

And in Cueto’s eyes, there is no question that the 2023 vintage, who play Saracens in Saturday’s Gallagher Premiership Rugby Final, have achieved the same balance under his former teammate Alex Sanderson.

Cueto explained: “There are massive parallels for me between the current squad and the squad we had back then. The backbone and the foundations of both teams are very northern.

“You had the likes of myself, Charlie Hodgson, Chris Jones, Dean Schofield, Richard Wigglesworth, who were all young north-west lads. Sprinkled on top of that were some world-class players from all over. We had Sébastien Chabal, Seb Bruno, Nacho Lobbe, Jason White.

“You compare it to now, you have local lads like the Curry twins, Josh Beaumont, Sam James, (Arron) Reed, (Joe) Carpenter, (Tom) Roebuck in the back three. They are almost like the new versions of us.

“Then the international star dust, you have the likes of the Du Preez brothers, I know George Ford and Manu Tuilagi are English but they haven’t come through our system, these sorts of guys are adding that international element. There are real parallels to the squad in 05/06.” 

That 2006 team ripped up the formbook on their way to the title, the only champions not named Leicester Tigers or Wasps between 1999 and 2010. 

They did so by making history, becoming the first team in the play-off era – which began four years earlier – to win at Twickenham after finishing the regular season top of the table. 

The man behind all of it was owner Brian Kennedy, who earmarked Saint-André as the man to put his vision into practice. 

Saint-André, who had previously coached at Gloucester from 1998 to 2002, said: “Brian Kennedy had told me when I was at Gloucester that one day we would work together.

“I then went to Bourgoin and when I left there, he called me and told me not to sign anywhere. He was on holiday and arrived a few days later, we chatted and that is how I ended up at Sale. I had five amazing years there. 

“We had identified that there were some talented players with a really good backline, Jason Robinson, Charlie Hodgson, Cueto etc. There was a bit of balance that was lacking between them and the forwards.

“So I arrived and brought Sébastien Bruno, Ignacio Fernandez-Lobbe and Sébastien Chabal with me. They were three really powerful guys.

“It was a team that culturally was built around the backs and playing through the three-quarters, except in Manchester it would rain 300 days a year so without a good set-piece, everything was trickier. 

“We had a lot of guys from Sale in the squad and that was part of the deal with Brian Kennedy, to keep the identity of the team, playing with pace but combining that with being tough up front.” 

A top-four finish and a European Challenge Cup title came in Saint-André’s first season, but the second brought another giant leap forward. 

First place at the end of the regular season was a sign the club was fulfilling their potential, backed up by a semi-final win over Wasps – who had won the previous three titles. 

Still, Sharks went to Twickenham as underdogs against a formidable Tigers team.

Hooker Andy Titterrell recalls: “Leicester were probably licking their lips looking out the window when they saw the conditions. But it didn’t stop us, the way we wanted to play. 

“I remember one thing that Kingsley (Jones, the forwards coach) said to the pack before we went out and played. He just said: “You boys don’t have anything, you don’t have a medal, you’ve never played in a final before. Those Leicester lads have already got one, if not two, if not three.

“I felt that I may never get back here again. And I never did as a player. That was a massive driving factor. When you are playing for a team, for a brotherhood of mates and really enjoying what you do, you find a way. When people say it was 17 years ago, it feels like it was 17 minutes ago.” 

After an early Leicester penalty, Sale took the lead when Cueto got on the end of Charlie Hodgson’s cross-kick, albeit with a little good fortune along the way. 

He jokes: “I was a footballer pre-rugby so the little backheel, I knew exactly what I was doing! 

“I don’t know if I remember feeling it hit the back of my leg, but as I landed, I was in a slightly better position. I saw the ball over the line and went five metres and dived on it.” 

The decisive moment came just before half-time. Under Saint-André, Sale were a pragmatic side who were happy to drop goals if it kept the scoreboard ticking over. 

So when Hodgson dropped back into the pocket, the Leicester defence raced up to try to block the kick. The fly-half saw his chance and sprinted round two defenders, throwing a glorious dummy and then putting Spanish winger Oriol Ripol in for the try. 

Suddenly, Sharks were 23-10 up at the break and in total control. For Ripol, the first Spaniard ever to play in the Premiership, it had been an unlikely journey to such an incredible moment. 

He said: “I had been at Northampton and then when Wayne Smith left, they let me go. I found myself looking for a club and ended up in Italy, and also had a trial at Stade Français which didn’t go well. 

“Sale had quite a few injuries and I got in touch with them. I went there from Italy and started back again in the Premiership which was my dream. They gave me that opportunity and the rest is history. 

“In that moment in the final, there was such internal euphoria. It had been such a rollercoaster going from Barcelona to Wales, to France, to Italy and then back to England.

“To end up playing in a Premiership final and being able to be on the end of an incredible move from Charlie, I was able to score and come out with a win. Not a lot of players do that, it was an incredible feeling.  

“It was a rainy day so when I caught the ball from Charlie, the only thing on my mind was ‘Do not drop the ball’.” 

Ripol did not and Sale cut loose in the second half, eventually running out 45-20 winners – still the highest total ever scored in a Premiership final. 

For Saint-André, it was a campaign to savour. He said: “As a coach, seasons like that, I had one last year with Montpellier and that one with Sale but they are rare. 

“It was a special human adventure and a great moment for the club.”

Now, 17 years on, a new crop are looking to write their names into the history books. For Cueto, the club’s all-time record try-scorer and appearance-maker, the key will be to manage their emotions. 

His advice to the team: “You’ve got to appreciate the occasion and respect it. But you’ve got there because of what you do week in, week out. It’s just another game, don’t let the occasion get on top of you.”  

If they can do that, the class of 2023 may just follow in the footsteps of Saint-André’s band of merry men.

via PremiershipRugby.com

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