Steve Diamond is not one to get over-excited. The man has always spoken sparsely, and never more so than when he stated this week: ‘Manu will be a fantastic commercial and playing addition to our squad.’
Excited Sale fans must have read that and thought: ‘understatement of the year.’
Tuilagi has indeed signed initially only for a year, or essentially the remainder of this season and the following one. Reportedly, he will earn reduced terms of around £300,000.
For Sale, this seems like shrewd business. In fact, it seems like remarkable business. Tuilagi is an elite player, one of the worlds best, and one of rugby’s few instantly recognisable ‘stars.’ He been has signed at a discounted rate. He could potentially have a transformative impact in Manchester, bolstering the Sale squad for their play-off push when rugby recommences on August 14th.
Sale sit currently in second place, five points behind Exeter. Their form this season, prior to the Covid-enforced break, had slowly developed from quietly impressive to stand-up-and-take-notice. Nevertheless, there remain nine games left of the season, and only ten points separate second and sixth. Sale have had many a false dawn in previous years. They have not appeared in the play-offs since their victorious 2005/06 season.
This time, though, feels somewhat different. The mood in the north-west is positive, ambitious, but not at all fazed by the heady heights that this team seeks. Why would they be? Faf de Klerk, Lood de Jager and Tom Curry faced each other in the World Cup final last autumn. They have talent and experience aplenty.
Fundamentally, it is a sign of the scope and appeal of the project that Sale are building that Tuilagi has signed at all. Amid interest from Racing 92, and given Eddie Jones has previously suggested he would pick Tuilagi ‘100%’ should he chose to move to France, Sale’s acquisition of the England centre represents a considerable coup.
‘We are trying to emulate other clubs who have won the competition,’ Diamond said. ‘Not just win it once and then disappear as Sale did 15 years ago.’ Not only, then, is Tuilagi a short term signing who could potentially prove the difference at the tail end of an unpredictable Premiership title push, he is emblematic of a longer-term strategy.
Sale have been one of the countries best academy sides for some time now, and their efforts at age-group level have begun to pay dividends. The Curry twins, both genuinely world class – although Tom has had the greater opportunities to demonstrate so on a global stage – are prime examples. So too is the impressive Luke James, a year younger than the two flankers.
Tuilagi told The Telegraph that the way Steve Diamond ‘looks after players’ convinced him to join. Sale’s first team training is governed by a ‘non-contact mentality.’ Their backroom set-up and coaching staff are far more intelligent and progressive than many give them credit for.
In the transfer market too Sale have been impressive. Stints under Steve Diamond helped to revive the careers of Danny Cipriani and James O’Connor – much to the benefit of Sale. Faf de Klerk may be recognised as an elite international now, but it is easy to forget that when he signed for Sale he was only one year into his test career, and was out of favour in the national set-up as recently as 2018. De Klerk has improved since his time at Sale began.
Uncapped captain Jono Ross was also signed from South Africa in 2017. Whilst he may not receive quite so many plaudits, his influence at the club cannot be understated. Ross sets the tone on and off the pitch: hard, abrasive, unwilling to back down.
Hard, abrasive, unwilling to back down. That is Sale. That is also, I guess, Manu Tuilagi. On the pitch, you can see Tuilagi suiting the sides’ style of play to a tee. For Sale fans, there is the prospect of a heavy-weight centre partnership of Tuilagi and Johan Janse van Rensburg to look forward to.
Off the pitch, though, is where the hard work at Sale has been done. Ultimately, it was that work behind the scenes that attracted Tuilagi to Sale, and it will be that same work that keeps them succeeding once he departs. Not just hard, abrasive and unwilling to back down, then, but clever and quietly ambitious too.
Written by Joe Ronan.