Sale Sharks – More than a Premiership Rugby Club
Some of you may remember when I interviewed Sale Sharks new CEO Jon (Dorsett) back in January 2017 he was clear that one of the club’s ambitions was to continue to develop their Academy into a world class provision and support the North West across a range of projects through the Sharks Community Trust. Not only did Jon ask me to spend some time with them but I know from the feedback just how many of you were engaged with and interested in this work. So I’ve happily been spending some time with both these groups over the last few months.
I met Jonny Acheson the Executive Director of Sharks Community Trust in a local pub during a snowstorm and once we pondered the merits of rhubarb gin (next time!) I asked Jonny how he came to be involved with the Trust. Jonny joined the organisation nearly 12 years ago, starting initially as a community coach within the club and after subsequent promotions finds himself as Executive Director. He’s been grateful for the recent support of Jon Dorsett as the Trust has formally separated from the club but as you’ll read remain very much integrated with Jon on the new Board of Trustees for the Trust. The new Board currently has 6 male members but is looking very much to change to reflect the area’s demographics and particularly the recruitment of women as the Trust looks to continue its restructure. Currently the Trust is proud that they are the largest Trust full-time workforce from amongst the Premiership clubs and certainly with the most diverse offer.
The ethos is focused on using rugby to have a positive impact on education, health and social inclusion; although as Jonny goes on to explain sometimes rugby plays no part at all in their work. A major investment has been in projects that improve people’s financial literacy skills and the Trust is grateful to MBNA who provided a major financial investment for 3 years to launch this award winning project, Number Cruncherz. Jonny talks me through how they use rugby scenarios such as signing new players against a salary cap and then relating the same challenge to paying household bills against an average income. Pupils soon understand why their parents have been asking them to stop turning on every light in the house when it comes out of their ‘Christmas gift allowance’. . We quickly realise whilst my rugby knowledge isn’t entirely accurate, my mathematics is worse and move quickly on….
The Hitz programme is by far the Community Trust’s biggest programme focusing on employability and life skills, particularly in the Manchester area. Reluctantly Jonny has to acknowledge that a lot of children in Manchester are far more dedicated to their football (something I later pick up with Brendan) and there’s a big Rugby League following and so they’ve adapted their physical element of the programme to allow the participants to pick their own sport to ensure they achieve the physical activity element including gym work and boxing. Emphasis is given on achieving a qualification, primarily at Level 1, improving employability skills (such as interview techniques and CV writing) and life skills (such as money management and substance misuse guidance). Throughout all the programmes they try to achieve a rugby link but are open to other suggestions if that’s the best thing for their participants.
One of the most exciting developments in 2016 was the introduction of ‘In the Pack’ driven very much by the amazing Vicky Irwin, who is passionate about inclusion. It provides a unique opportunity for people with additional or special needs to play rugby – including Wheelchair Tag rugby, Inclusive Tag, Mixed Ability Rugby and Walking Rugby. Even I was invited recently to try Walking Rugby! The Trust has 12 special wheelchairs that they can use within school and sports settings.
Mental health and emotional wellbeing has been recognised as an issue that the Trust can help young people with and a new schools programme has been developed getting young people to talk about their feelings. Jonny pays tribute to the willingness of players such as ex-Sale player Danny Cipriani to acknowledge and discuss their own issues, which is clearly helping to remove such of the stigma previously associated with mental health.
The link with continues as I hear about ‘On the Front Foot’ which provides lifeskills advice to young people based on rugby’s core values of respect, teamwork, enjoyment, discipline and sportsmanship. Nutritional advice for young people in Trafford and Salford is given through ‘East Well Play Safe’ and I gain a valuable insight into a professional rugby player’s diet and how to concoct a sandwich using all the food groups! (maybe Andy Goode fancies it??)
I asked what encouragement the club provides for the programmes and hear that Steve Diamond is extremely supportive and greatly enables player access. Jonny feels he get much better support than other Premiership clubs do and that’s down to the commitment the club and Dimes in particular feels to the North West. Different players are drawn to different programmes and Dimes seeks to enable this ensuring all players are given time in their busy schedules 4-6 weeks in advance. Jonny praises Dimes ability to find a solution to just about anything asked of him.
The Veterans programme is a new initiative for the Trust funded by The British Legion and has made an immediate impact. We discuss the many challenges facing Veterans Jonny confirms that even the team were surprised by what they found and how much work they are having to put in to combat the effects of stress. He’s particularly pleased with the mock interviews provision and tells me one Veteran, John was so impressive in his mock interview that the company found him a job! We discuss the links between this and the players automated lives, spending some time digressing (not for the first time) on individual players plans for the future – more of which later.
I ask about future plans and Jonny is hoping to do more work in schools and focussing on STEM subjects, with the core values of rugby integral to any programme. He’s also hoping to do work to support girls rugby in the region. We discuss the English and Premiership Rugby’s drive to bring rugby to non-traditional audiences, especially for people with disabilities and from low socio-economic groups, particular drivers here in the North West. He tells me of work undertaken in a Muslim faith school in Bolton with the help of Bolton Rugby club. This impacts upon Academy and club development later down the line as many high schools have no rugby provision and that impacts on local clubs, something that Brendan also touches on.
It’s been a thoroughly inspirational afternoon and it’s clear just how progressive Sale Sharks and the Community Trust are in wanting to improve people’s lives. (Since then we’ve been jointly exploring how rugby can have such a positive impact on children and young people with autism – so watch this space).
A couple of weeks later I met Sale Sharks Academy Manager Brendan Thomas. Brendan spoke about the academy in depth with a particular focus on the recent changes and ever increasing size of the academy programmes. The first striking feature being the size and geographical reach of the DPP including players aged 12-16 in 6 centres across the North West.
The DPP focuses on the holistic development of individual players and provides a first opportunity to identify those players with the greatest potential to enter the pathway towards the professional game. Players are taught about nutrition, strength and conditioning and psychological aspects of the game as well as honing their rugby skills through expert coaching. The Academy receives funding from the RFU for the DPP in conjunction with Cheshire and Lancashire Counties; as well as a significant contribution from Sale Sharks to double the funding and ensure a wider development programme. The funding is also linked to RFU requirements and the Academy Audit which the club is subject to on an annual basis- more of which later.
Brendan talks me through the change from team development to individual player development and how that’s been managed by the DPP Implementation Group, comprising 2 representatives from each of the RFU, Sale Sharks, Cheshire and Lancashire. The academy is also strongly supported by volunteer coaches at DPP whom give up numerous hours in order to support the development of young players. The 2017-18 season sees a new staffing structure for the DPP led by Noel Speed and Kate Bennetta and a new framework and curriculum to ensure each player has the Sharks DNA. The academy is also inviting new coaches from the region to support the DPP and it is hoped to have 40 coaches across the region by October 2017.
The Academy structure continues above DPP to Player Development Groups from (u15-18) and is overseen by the academy in conjunction with the Player Pathway Group, particularly during the transition in and out of the academy programmes. Brendan talks me through an impressive diagram showing the age groups and all the entry and exit points across the pathway all the way up to age 24. Sale aim to keep as many players as possible engaged with the pathway and around 10% of registered rugby youngsters are engaged in the DPP for at least 2 years.
Sale Sharks are also working hard to build an excellent network with clubs and schools in the region and to provide university opportunities at post-18. They’re well connected with other clubs in the community and the senior lads aged 18 are often on dual registration at other local clubs to support their development. The aim is to develop under 17s provision over the next few years and this season has seen 5 players signed to the Senior Academy on 5 year deals, with a further 7 under 17 players given bursaries and 6 players given 5 year contracts. The recent Alex Shawsports article https://alexshawsports.wordpress.com/2017/07/10/premiership-academy-analysis/ underlines the fact that Sale have the second most graduates playing Premiership rugby last season.
The Junior Academy (u16-18) also links to the Myerscough College AASE programme, which supported the development of Will Cliff and Mike Haley. I ask if there’s any tips for the top (hands off #RugbyWasps) and all the lads on new contracts are highly rated so tips for the top include (in no particular order!) Kieron Wilkinson, Bevan Rodd, Sam Dugdale, Ciaran Booth, Cameron Redpath, Connor Doherty, Tom Walsh, Arron Reed, Nic Dolly, Sam Moore, Matt Sturgess and Luke James (brother of Sam).
At age 17 the club’s preference if for young players to remain in school, providing holistic development and with recognition that most of them are in rugby schools. There is a very firm emphasis on well rounded development as young men and not just as rugby players. There’s a layered curriculum at this level providing rugby, education, life skills, strength and conditioning and mental health support. The Sale Sharks Education Manager, the lovely Alison Warwood ensures they work towards qualifications and continue to develop their lifeskills as well as rugby development and Dimes has been known to intervene if they neglect their education! This philosophy goes all the way through the club and all the players I’ve met are focused on their life after playing.
At 18 the club have a strong relationship with Manchester Met, UCLAN, University of Manchester and Salford Universities as well as supporting players to move further afield to Universities to suit their requirements, Josh Beaumont and Diogo Ferreira being examples of players studying at Durham University whilst continuing professional rugby careers. Players staying local to the area are supported to play locally either with the Jets or teams such as Sale FC. It’s clear that there’s a healthy promotion of education here (good news for parents!) and this runs in accordance with the guidelines set out by the RFU.
Later on the club support all the players in further development with the Curry’s and Cameron Nield currently undertaking coaching awards. Vocational opportunities are promoted and all the Academy players attend mandatory lifeskills workshops on a diverse range of subjects including alcohol, drugs, and mental health…. as they say ‘better people make better players’!
Substantial work is also being done with parents in order to support players away from the academy through each phase of the pathway along with recognition on how many youngsters will attend the DPP and how few will gain a contract in order to manage expectation.
The Academy pathway also has clear links through to the elite England team and a number of Sale youngsters have represented England at U16-20 age grades levels this season. I ask what difference the club’s commitment to young players, particularly as a major pillar of the strategy, makes and Brendan is adamant it gives a real purpose to their work. He feels it‘s visionary from the Board and gives a real future to the Academy players. Everything is geared to 75% of the Sale Sharks squad coming from the North West. This goal is supported by a new Academy Management Group that includes Dermot Power and Dimes from the Board along with Ray Unsworth and Paul Smith. The group is led by Fran Cotton who is truly inspirational in his unashamed desire for the Sale Academy to be world class.
However, let’s not kid ourselves – this is a sound business model – it gives a very clear identity to the Sale Sharks and Academy brand and encourages local players and their friends/families to support Sale Sharks and remain true to the North West vision. The club recognises that their catchment area provides a disproportionately large number of England internationals and is clearly a hot spot for talent that they are keen to exploit.
I ask if they were disappointed to lose local player Tommy Taylor last season and Brendan repeats Dimes quote at the time, ‘it was like being dumped by your girlfriend’. I ask if they think it’s worked out for him and there’s a clear view that the new longer term contracts for players will assist with retention and allow for longer term planning. However you can’t discuss the Academy at the moment without mentioning the amazing Curry twins and this brings a big smile to everyone’s faces. Brendan credits their amazing attitude and relentless desire to improve (and beat each other!) and certainly, unless the Summer has changed them, I can confirm they are lovely lads who are always laughing (and usually pushing each other about!).
Brendan talks about the additional investment in resources coming into the Academy with Sale player Neil Briggs making a high profile move to the Academy team and Warren Spragg leading on the Junior Academy programme and the North site, which will be the second site coming out of the Myerscough College AASE and the second full training site; chosen for its accessibility to the North. Josh Walker has moved from Intern to Academy analyst while Rob Simpson comes into the team from Salford University to Academy strength and conditioner. There’s also been a full review of the facilities working with Manchester Met and UCLAN to share development, resources and experience. Add to this a number of specialist coaches deployed throughout the DPP set up and support being given to local clubs at grassroots levels.
The success of the Academy last season speaks for itself and its also interesting to note that, with the exception of Denny, 6 out of the 7 Sale players on International duty have come through the Academy. They are also rightly proud of their 100% success rating across all the RFU standards in last years’ Academy Audit.
Investment is made by this club into young people within the North West. Sale recognises that they need to fight against football and in some areas Rugby League, particularly with the financial rewards offered by neighbouring football clubs. Brendan gives full credit to Dimes whose DNA runs through the club and is ever keen to ensure the offer reaches all areas. They are widening their work with the Community Trust to reach more schools and raise interest levels.
It’s been amazing to get a real sense of the work that goes into making Sale Sharks the club it is – a holistic approach to not only being a top rugby union club but significant investment into the North West through its grassroots development and beyond. Thanks as ever to Dave Swanton and particularly Jonny Acheson and Brendan Thomas for their extensive time out of their very busy diaries.