On the first Sunday in April, at approximately 5.45pm local time - or whatever passes for time in the little piece of heaven that is San Sebastian in the spring - Philippe Saint-André arrived at the happy conclusion that Sale were about to become English champions for the first time in their 145-year history. Considering the club had just lost perhaps the most important of the thousands of matches played during almost a century and a half of thud-and-blunder activity, this was an interesting slant on events. Most coaches like to take positives from the negatives, to recoin a sporting cliché, but this bordered on the ridiculous.
"I remember it precisely," the Frenchman said, casting his mind back to that Heineken Cup quarter-final defeat by Biarritz in front of a 32,000-strong Basque crowd at Estadio Anoeta. "I was bitterly disappointed at losing the game, because victory would have meant so much. It would have made a big club of us. But as I stood on the pitch, a few yards away from my players as they commiserated with each other, I realised the Premiership would be ours. Biarritz had spent four years, maybe five years, building towards that European campaign, and had won two French titles as part of the process. We had been building for only one year, and had gone close to beating them. I immediately went to the players and said: 'Yes, it's bad to lose. I hate losing even more than you. But if we hold our nerve, we will enjoy a greater victory'." And so it transpired.
Sale completed the regular season with a six-point advantage at the top of the table, outmuscled the previously unoutmuscleable Wasps in a semi-final sprinkled with stardust by Jason Robinson and then gave Leicester the mother and father of a pasting at Twickenham to close the deal. For Saint-André, the emotions came in a headlong rush: elation, satisfaction, vindication. He felt he had earned the respect of his peers, that his approach to coaching and rugby directorship had achieved legitimacy at long last. Above all, he was able to reassure himself of his own sanity.
"I've been called crazy many times," he said. "Brian Kennedy [the chairman and investor-in-chief at Sale] was called crazy when he brought me to the club. It follows me around, this craziness thing. So when Brian offered me a new contract through to 2010, I hesitated. I was in fashion suddenly, and when you are in fashion, opportunities come your way. I had many opportunities to move on, and I knew my name was in the papers back home, that I was being mentioned, along with Patrice [Lagisquet of Biarritz] and Fabien [Galthié of Stade Français], as a candidate to coach France after the next World Cup.
"But in life, it is important to be straightforward, to be honest. Brian had taken a big gamble in bringing me to England and giving me the chance to show people here that I could be a good coach. Together, we had helped Sale become a serious club, a club of winners. In the end, I could not turn him down."
There is no such thing as a consequence-free triumph, however. It is the way of professional sport. In winning the title, Sale inadvertently placed more of their players under greater risk of injury and burn-out than ever before. England selectors who had previously fixed their sights on the Charlie Hodgsons and Andrew Sheridans were now extremely interested in Chris Jones and Magnus Lund, in Stuart Turner and Dean Schofield and Andy Titterrell. As Saint-André had no access to the kind of resources underpinning the likes of Biarritz and Stade Français, the second half of 2006 was every bit as grim as he feared - a not-so-perfect counterbalance to the glories of the first six months.
"They were terrible for us, those weeks of international rugby in November," he conceded. "To lose Jason White, such an important player, for the season wounded us; to see Hodgson and Sheridan badly damaged in the same Test was worse. These problems came on top of losing Schofield, who had been hurt playing for the England Saxons in Canada, and Titterrell, who had injured himself during the tour of Australia last summer. After winning the Premiership, I was able to make the squad a little bigger, to bring in a little extra quality. But I would need the biggest squad in the world to absorb all this. Each week this season, there have been between nine and 12 injured players. Last season, the figure was three or four.
"In the final week of the international programme, I watched Ireland play the Pacific Islands, who had selected Elvis Seveali'i [the Sale centre] in their team. When I got up to go to the loo, Elvis was on the field and playing well. When I came back, he was nowhere to be seen. I said: 'Where's Elvis? He was there a minute ago.' When I was told he had suffered a bad injury, I thought: 'This is not possible. It is too much.' I kept watching, hoping he would return to the field. The reality, of course, was that he had gone the same way as the others."
Sale are still in there scrapping, at both Premiership and European levels, but their season has been severely undermined. "Am I angry? Yes, I feel cross about it," Saint-André acknowledged. "I had high hopes for our Heineken Cup campaign, but it is getting more difficult for us by the week and we will do well to qualify for the knock-out stage.
"Partly, we must blame ourselves. We lost our opening game against Ospreys through our own mistakes - a game we would have won nine times out of 10, had we played properly. But the injuries we have now make it so tough to recover from that defeat. We have heard so much about injuries affecting the England team, but we hear much less about the effects when things happen the other way round. An international coach can lose 10 players and still have dozens of high-class people available to him. Me? I have what I have, and that's it. The situations are not the same."
Unsurprisingly, given the recent impact of club rugby on the fortunes of the England team and vice versa, Saint-André has been thinking long and hard about the politics of the game in this country. He feels sorry for the world champions - quite an effort for a Frenchman.
"They are better than they seem at the moment," he said, with deep sincerity. But he is equally sympathetic, if not more so, towards the clubs who have made themselves the bedrock of professional union. He sees great potential for growth - "A couple of years ago, Sale played a European Challenge Cup game against Catania in Sicily in front of 45 spectators and five dogs; earlier this month, we played Stade Français in front of 45,000 at Parc des Princes" - and believes there is a straightforward way of breaking the club-country impasse.
"If the RFU pays the clubs a realistic amount of money for the international players they develop, and that money can be spent on strengthening squads over and above the salary cap, we will have a solution," he explained. "This is quite simple. In France, the teams who give most to the Test team - Biarritz, Stade Français, Toulouse - are the teams who do best in the domestic championship and in Heineken Cup rugby. There is no mystery to this. It is because they do not operate under a salary cap, and can therefore allow the best players more time to devote to international matters.
In England, it works the other way: by producing international-class players, the clubs hurt themselves. If the French suddenly take Sébastien Chabal for the Six Nations Championship, as they probably will, where does that leave us? I have played international rugby, and I know what it means. I would not try to stop Sébastien playing, to interfere with his dream. How could I do such a thing? But you see my point, I hope. There is a solution, but only if the clubs are paid the proper rate for the players they produce. Once that is established, things will fall into place."
Saint-André has long been a critic of the current Tricolore coach, Bernard Laporte, in respect of Chabal, the buccaneering No 8 from Valence who habitually plays like some long-haired galactico and whose recent Heineken Cup performances against Stade Français beggared belief. "I hear Sébastien will be included in the Six Nations squad," he said. "This is bad news for us, but it is obvious Laporte should pick him. Sébastien is a free spirit. If he is allowed the freedom he loves, he will play wonderful rugby. Put him in a straitjacket, and he will not play at all. If France handle him correctly, he will be a big figure in the World Cup. I think this is understood now. Speaking as a Frenchman, I hope it is understood."
All of which led neatly to the subject of Saint-André's own ambitions. Should his nation come calling when Laporte relinquishes control next October, will he answer the knock at the door? "If, one day, I am approached and given the opportunity to coach my country, it will be because I have proved myself worthy, because I deserve it," he responded, every bit as evasive as when he launched the famous "try from the ends of the earth" in the dying seconds of the New Zealand-France Test in Auckland a dozen years ago. Then, after a pause for thought, he added: "I am not mad. I have things in my contract that may or may not come into effect. But this is not in the present. I am happy at Sale, despite the weather, and my family is happy too. I have work to do, things to achieve."
A European title being the most pressing? "It would be the ultimate for us," he agreed. "The Heineken Cup is a fantastic competition. Even when you lose badly, as we did in Munster in January, you are better and stronger for the experience."
Talking of which, Saint-André was rumoured to have used an unusual prop during his team-talk before that game at Thomond Park: a piece of prime fillet steak, no less. Any truth in this one?
"Ah, the steak," he replied. "Actually, it never happened, although I did plan to do it. It goes back to Jacques Fouroux when he was coaching France, and he had to choose between Denis Charvet and Marc Andrieu in midfield. Everyone wanted Charvet, because he played with such style and sophistication, such creativity. Andrieu was not like this, but Fouroux picked him anyway. When asked why, he said: 'Imagine these two men in the dressing room, with a piece of steak on the table. Only one of them can eat it. Will it be Charvet, or Andrieu? I tell you, Andrieu will get the steak. This is why he is in my team.'
"For Andrieu, read Munster. They were the hungry ones that night, because they had to win the game. We'd already qualified. My plan was to take some steak into the dressing room and tell my players the story as a way of making the same point. Why didn't I? We had won something like 14 of our previous 17 games, and only one of those defeats had been in Premiership or European rugby. Under the circumstances, how could I walk in there and preach to my players about hunger and desire? Yet I knew we were at risk, and I was right. Munster ran all over us and scored four tries - a result that cost us the home quarter-final we'd thought was ours."
Should Sale come up short in Europe a second time, Saint-André will plead mitigating circumstances - a rough deal with the tournament draw, an even rougher one on the personnel front. But, in truth, there is no need for excuses. If 2006 was an up and down kind of experience, the reputation of English rugby's favourite Frenchman stands much higher above sea level now than it did at the year's turning.Reuse content