Ed. Heather Akehurst, who helps run the @RugbySaleSharks account as part of the wider Rugby United initiative, has kindly sent along the report she wrote after attending Sale's summer BBQ event on Thursday.
I was there in Manchester, doing my day job, when George Osborne announced the creation of a Northern Powerhouse that would rival the Southern cities economically. A somewhat nebulous term it is generally accepted it begins around Liverpool and moves up through Manchester, Leeds and York, with its centre in Manchester. Broadly equivalent to the Sale Sharks ‘catchment’ area. It is intended to build on the existing economic growth and start to create a more level playing field.
Therefore there were significant similarities when Sale Sharks’ new Chairman, Fran Cotton, announced that he and the new Board also intend to turn Sale Sharks into a Northern Powerhouse.
The last few weeks have been a series of business announcements for Sale Sharks, which have positioned the club in business terms whilst giving strong support for Steve Diamond on the pitch. For any fans worried that these moves will see Dimes ousted let me reassure you, Dimes is very much the catalyst in these moves and yesterday demonstrated not only his grasp on the rugby pitch but within the new business and financial world Sale Sharks are seeking to carve out. It was a very relaxed Dimes yesterday (more so than I’ve ever seen him) although the new rugby season hasn’t started yet!
We had the exciting but not unexpected news that Brian Kennedy had relinquished control to Simon Orange of CorpAcq and Ged Mason of Morson International, both local lads with Simon, tellingly, a close friend of Dimes for many years. Simon promised a new Board and made it clear there was money to be spent but the club needed to get on a much sounder business footing to attract and retain not only players but fans.
The new primary club sponsor UKFast was announced earlier in the week with Lawrence Jones announcing that it was only the change of ownership plus the combined wiles of Dimes and Mark Cueto (who has hit the ground running as Commercial Director) that brought him back to Sale Sharks. The only thing that worried me was they met him again on a Sale Sharks ski-ing trip!! Are we the only club to enjoy dangerous sports mid-season?
The new Board was presented yesterday and is an interesting mix of rugby and business acumen, often in the same package. The big name is of course Fran Cotton who made it very clear he will be active in his new role. Indeed, it was Fran who announced the vision to turn Sale Sharks into a Northern Powerhouse with consistent top 4 finishes whilst vying for trophies every season. Welcomingly, he spoke about continued investment into the Academy and how that will continue to be a strength for the club. These are not just words however as I can confirm (from my vested interest!) that Sale Sharks have expanded their Development Programmes with bigger squads from age 15 upwards. Good news indeed for Cheshire, Merseyside and Manchester grassroots clubs.
Other big hitters include Mike Ingall, the property guru, Steve Smith (previously Sale Sharks player, co-founder of Cotton Traders and Chairman of Sale FC), Mike Blood (ex-Sale Sharks player and specialist sponsorship adviser), Dermot Power (who will specifically be looking at the links Sale Sharks have with grassroots rugby to enhance their Academy and presence), Jon Dorsett as CEO (from CorpAcq) and of course Dimes.
The press conference and subsequent BBQ was evidence of what Sale Sharks does best. Professional and well-run; but down to earth and true to their roots. It’s clear they intend to retain a family focus and indeed Lawrence Jones spoke about he wanted the match day experience to be something that his four daughters and ‘even his wife’ (!) would enjoy.
Interestingly, a lot of their plans are linked to their very traffic management strategies but more of that later. Plans are in an advanced stage for lots of different activities at the AJ Bell Stadium this season with Board and player contact with fans at the heart of it all. As well as the Shark Tank, there’ll be a big marquee for after the game so fans can have a drink, wait for the initial congestion to ease, and mix with Board and players. Whilst understandably little detail was given at this time, Lawrence Jones said he was happy to be quoted that ‘we won’t have problems (with matchday experiences) this season’.
Simon Orange did confirm privately afterwards that it won’t include Take That and also for those Take That fans amongst you that Jason Orange won’t be joining the reunion tour!
It was interesting that Dimes fielded my questions on traffic measures and he was confident that progress has been made and will continue to be made throughout the season. He’s been meeting regularly with several traffic management companies and the police to gain solutions. The move to 8.15pm kick offs on a Friday is part of this to avoid conflict with peak travel times, although I guess that depends where you’re coming from. The traffic lights have been re-configured and that will be tested at a Spectator event in August where fans can come to see the players train and meet the players/Board. Other ideas include a possible car park for families with younger children and reduced car park prices for cars with 4 or more people in to encourage car sharing. The new marquee is part of this to encourage those without children (or willing to stay later) to hang on in convivial surroundings knowing the players and Board will be heading out that way.
I asked Dimes about the ‘travel sickness’ clearly suffered by some players last season and got little response except for an acknowledgement that too many away games were lost and the club needs to build upon its home success. Hopefully some of the experienced names coming into the side will help that. Mention was made by Fran that if Sale Sharks had converted all kickable points away last season it would have been a different picture and probably top 3 finish. AJ MacGinty has impressed the team in practice and is being tipped by the coaching staff as making an immediate mark on the premiership.
There’s a big belief that a number of the Sale ‘young guns’ will be on international duty at different levels this season and whilst I think most fans would agree that it will clearly be a doubled edged sword. Exciting, young international players will clearly boost attendance but we’ve always done well in the international season as we’ve lost far less players than other clubs.
I put that to Dimes and Fran who are aware of the issue but believe this is where the long standing club policy of significant investment into the Academy will provide strength in depth as well as giving some youngsters the chance to demonstrate their potential. There’s certainly no rush to sign players. The Board are adamant the money is available but they must be the right players and they have no plans to move to carry more numbers. Good news for Academy development but in my view a gamble. Still #InDimesWeTrust.
There was no sign of Kyle Eastmond at the event but I know there is at least one player announcement imminent (ed. confirmed on Friday to be a fullback) but it was not felt appropriate to do at this event. Personally, should Eastmond eventually sign with the club I think he’ll be a great addition to what already promises to be a very fast and exciting lineup next year.
Tom Arscott looked well and told me he’s back in the gym and making an excellent recovery with mid-October as his set return date. Mike Haley was sporting a very impressive shoulder brace and told me he literally went from the plane to the operating theatre upon his return from the Saxons tour to South Africa in June. His doctors are saying mid-October also but he’s far more bullish about an earlier return. This does leave us with some problems at the back especially as Josh Charnley who could cover isn’t due to arrive until November. Look for Dan Mugford to play out of position or maybe a place for James Mitchell (hotly tipped by Will Addison as a player to keep an eye on) in the starting team.
Josh Beaumont was incredibly focused and both he and Mike Haley are settled at Sale Sharks, which is good news. Peter Stringer looked awesome as usual – not sure where he keeps the mirror in the attic!
In all there was a real positive buzz on Thursday and will be interesting to see how the new Board takes the club forward. Some concerns from me are that the ‘catchment area’ Sale Sharks operate in is an advantage that hasn’t been fully exploited yet and I’ll be looking to see changes there. Unfortunately the lack of other North-West Premiership teams means we don’t have a local rivalry/derby feel, which can generate excitement and interest.
On the plus side what struck me last season was ‘top 6’ was an absolute mantra for players and coaching staff alike. Even when we could do top 4, people would only talk about top 6. If that belief and determination carries forward for ‘top 4’ then I for one am on board. Fran and Simon were unequivocal in that success and consistent top 4 placing is necessary to build the brand.
I can’t wait for the new season now. Thanks to Dave Swanton and Stephen Thomas who are unfailingly helpful and courteous and make me the envy of my RugbyUnited colleagues; thanks to Steve Diamond for inviting me to the press conference and event yesterday and to RugbyUnited for letting me do this!
Heather Akehurst is one of three contributors to the RugbySaleSharks Twitter account which can be found here.
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