Last night fans, players and staff descended on the recently christened AJ Bell Stadium in Salford for the Sale Sharks open night.
With over 450 fans being joined by a host of star names the evening proved to be a great success for all involved. The evening gave fans the opportunity to meet with players and staff, ask their questions about on and off-field topics and tour the stadium including the changing rooms. In an age of professionalism it is rare for fans to be given the opportunity to gain access to both players and facilities which so often seem off limits so the Sale team must be congratulated for giving fans an access-all-areas pass for the evening.
We arrived at the stadium just before 7 o’clock and where greeted at the entrance with some truly excellent pies and a poster of the team for signings. After meandering our way to the bar we then went up and met a host of players including the likes of Dan Braid, Dave Seymour, Danny Cipriani and Henry Thomas who were all more than happy to chat to fans and sign anything thrust in front of them.
Meanwhile, downstairs fans were treated to guided tours of the changing room facilities and given an insight into the match day preparation involved for the whole team. Back upstairs we were able to chat to performance analyst Hugh Jenner who was able to tell us exactly what he and his team are busy looking at on their laptop screens on match days. Dotted around the room where also various members of the stadium facilities and catering management team who we could discuss any concerns and issues with.
Around 7.30 Nathan Middleton kicked off a Q&A session with Steve Diamond, Danny Cipriani and Dan Braid. All three where incredibly open and honest with their answers in front of a packed crowd, providing fans with some excellent insight they may not otherwise have access to. Of particular interest were some of Dimes’ comments regarding both the salary cap and rugby clubs as a whole.
He was quick to point out that he personally feels that 3 to 4 clubs are currently breaking the salary cap and suggested “you don’t have to be a mathematical genius” to see who it might be when looking at the table. He did however have high praise for Exeter and the way the club was run and feels that Sale mirror the Chiefs in a number of ways.
Dimes also noted how keen he was to retain the “rugby club” status of Sale Sharks with players not being fined for being late but instead being subjected to forfeits such as washing other players cars. He was also keen to make it clear that he firmly believed in retaining the heritage of the club and the traditions of a true rugby club. He did however mention that Sale can no longer continue acting as such in the public eye and making it clear there needs to be some professionalism, pointing to a certain night out in Leeds as a prime example.
Sale skipper Dan Braid was equally honest in his assessment of where the club where at when he joined last season and in that there is still a lot of work to do. He was clearly still extremely disappointed by the defeat to Quins last weekend and the manner in which his team went down.
Danny Cipriani also helped to provide some interesting insight into both his own and the squads mindset currently. He recounted how at Wasps there was always a feeling that some players where looking to move on where as at Sale he does not get that same feeling. He seems to firmly believe there is a strong bond throughout the squad and sounded keen to commit his future to the club for the longer-term.
He was also brutally honest about his performances last season and how a certain night out in Leeds helped change his perspective on things. He was also effusive in his praise for new defence coach Mike Forshaw who he credits with not only developing his own game but helping strengthen the team throughout. All-in-all you got the impression that Sale are finally beginning to build a club we can be proud of and that the staff, owners and players are all in it for the long run.
Steve finished off the evening by making an honest assessment of the current stadium issues but pleaded with plans to bare with them whilst things were being improved. He made it clear that both he and the team intend to continue performing on the pitch in order to get bums on seats. He also had a special mention for owner Brian Kennedy who ploughs over two million pounds a year into the club and sounds as committed as ever to the longer term project at Sale Sharks.
Special mention must also be reserved for Diamond and Cipriani who formed a formidable comedy duo up on stage. Dimes quipping that this season “I need to stay off the back pages and Danny needs to keep out of the front pages”. Cipriani later joked that although he wouldn’t consider events in Leeds earlier this summer as life changing he “did get hit by a bus”, making it perfectly clear that it had a profound impact on him this season.
A special thanks to Dave Swanton and the rest of the Sale team who organised a fantastic evening that all the fans I spoke to seemed to genuinely enjoy.