Anglesea driven by passion in turbulent times

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The Independent Online

Pete Anglesea is the captain of Sale, and he cherishes his position at the club he has come to love. Pride and passion are etched into his features in equal measure. Anglesea is a heart-and-soul sort with a refreshingly uncomplicated view of rugby life, and Sale represent everything he holds dear about this most demanding of team sports: the togetherness, the camaraderie, the almost tangible sense of blood-brotherhood behind the closed door of the dressing room after a match. These are the very fundamentals of the union code and they are deemed to be non-negotiable, indivisible and eternal.

Pete Anglesea is the captain of Sale, and he cherishes his position at the club he has come to love. Pride and passion are etched into his features in equal measure. Anglesea is a heart-and-soul sort with a refreshingly uncomplicated view of rugby life, and Sale represent everything he holds dear about this most demanding of team sports: the togetherness, the camaraderie, the almost tangible sense of blood-brotherhood behind the closed door of the dressing room after a match. These are the very fundamentals of the union code and they are deemed to be non-negotiable, indivisible and eternal.

At least, they should be. Half an hour in the company of Anglesea, a 6ft 3in loose forward with a beaten-up face and a sunburned nose that flashes like a set of traffic lights - "Serves him right for swanning off to Spain in mid-season," said a smirking colleague, with more than a touch of schadenfreude - reinforces the impression that rugby is a game in flux, a sport struggling to cling to ancient values that have little or nothing to do with the commercial realities of professionalism. Like the union code itself, Anglesea has seen things he would not have wished to see. If he is a wiser player as a result of recent events, he is also a sadder one.

"As professional rugby people, as players and coaches, we have to accept that we are commodities," he said this week, during a short break from preparations for this afternoon's Powergen Cup semi-final with Leeds. "People get shipped out, and those of us who remain must say our goodbyes and move on. It can be difficult, dealing with uncertainty when you are so used to stability. But what do you do, except get yourself back out on the training pitch and go to work?"

The uncertainty to which Anglesea referred still enshrouds the club like winter fog. A few short months after leaving Heywood Road, their ramshackle home since time immemorial, for more spacious surroundings at Edgeley Park in Stockport, the top end of an operation that took Sale to a Parker Pen Challenge Cup title in 2002 and brought two seasons of Heineken Cup rugby to the north-west of England has been dismantled.

Steve Diamond, a tough-nut hooker who made well over 100 league appearances for the team before taking on a coaching role, is now at Saracens, where he will soon be joined by Alex Sanderson, a frequent captain and one of the most accomplished players on the staff. Jim Mallinder, a thoroughly successful director of rugby by any reasonable judgement, has agreed to take on the less public job of head coach, but is effectively open to offers from elsewhere.

Meanwhile, a new director of rugby is casting an eye over his new domain: Philippe Saint-André, who is a gifted but contrary figure who could divide opinion in his sleep.

If truth be told, Mallinder is every bit as bemused as his players by the turmoil at the club, which was set in train by Brian Kennedy, who bought the club in 2000 and, after three years of enlightened man-management, suddenly seems as impatient for the delivery of silverware as the rest of his slash-and-burn peers. "I think the people here have quickly learned to be more realistic in terms of the way they see the future," Mallinder said.

"Chopping and changing is part of the scene now. There has been some turbulence over the last few months - no one could sensibly deny that - and when a club finds itself in these circumstances, it looks to the likes of Pete Anglesea to pull things together and hold them in tight. He is a vital player for us, the cement between the bricks."

Anglesea was born in Bolton and played the best of his early rugby at Orrell. When John Mitchell, the former All Black No 8, was coming to the end of his stint as a player-coach at Sale - he wanted to play less and coach more, as befitted a creaking thirty-something - he attempted to recruit Anglesea, who turned him down and went to Bedford instead. It was far from the brightest decision he ever made, and within a season, he was playing under Mitchell at Heywood Road. A few weeks into his new job, he knew he had found a home.

He played scores of games with Diamond, and even more with Sanderson, a back-row partner of long standing who will see out the season at Edgeley Park before moving south, but is strictly past tense as far as the Sale executives are concerned. The situation pains Anglesea, but he sees no sensible alternative to the fatalistic approach. This, he says, is the way of it in modern rugby.

"Every two or three years, there is a clear-out of some description. It is part and parcel of professional rugby. Since I've been here, I've seen John Mitchell go, Glenn Ross go, Steve Diamond go. Steve is my friend, a friend of everyone here at Sale; when he left, we met together as a group of players, talked about what had happened and agreed that the worst possible thing for us to do would be to use this latest upheaval as an excuse for poor performances. We said that if anything, we would play harder than we did under Steve. We have a commitment to the club, and a commitment to each other. Let's get on with it."

Getting on with it in the true Anglesea-style is no one's idea of a picnic. He is, and always has been, among the tougher players in the Premiership, and his toughness is of the optimum variety - quietly ruthless and stripped of all flamboyance. When he travelled to Canada with a second-string England squad for last summer's inaugural Churchill Cup tournament, he suffered what turned out to be a serious knee injury during the final against the United States, but struggled through to the end. What was more, he turned out in two subsequent matches in Japan. "The management didn't send for a replacement, so I strapped myself up and played on," he recalled.

Two operations and six months later, Anglesea returned to big-time rugby just as the Mallinder-Diamond controversy was reaching its apogee. "Funnily enough, I'd been appointed captain to help stabilise the club during the World Cup, when we knew we would be without important players," he said. "Before I knew it, I was missing too. It was bitterly frustrating, watching one of the smallest professional squads in the Premiership battle on without Jason Robinson, Bryan Redpath and Jason White, and without people like Charlie Hodgson, who was injured.

"What you end up with in those circumstances is a position where players play when they shouldn't play and aggravate their own injury problems. It isn't a sustainable situation for a club of this size.

"We still have injuries now, but at least we can field a strong side and give ourselves a decent shot at the Powergen Cup. A Twickenham final would be quite something for us after the season we've had. Is there still a sense of magic about knock-out rugby? I think so, yes. You only have to look at Pertemps Bees and their victory over Wasps in the last round to get that wonderful feeling of uncertainty, the feeling that anything is possible, even in the professional era.

"They won that tie because they played for each other, and that is what I love about the club game. I enjoyed every minute of my representative rugby, of my trips to Argentina and Canada with England, and I would have loved to have won a cap. But the fact that I didn't achieve full international honours doesn't grieve me, because the thing that really motivates me about this sport is playing with my mates, week-in and week-out."

At 32, Anglesea believes he has another two good years left in the tank; indeed, he is on the point of signing an extension to his contract that will take him through to the end of the 2005-06 season. With the radical and innovative Saint-André now in place, Sale are about to embark on a voyage into the unknown. Under the circumstances, their captain is more important to them now than he has ever been.

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