Kingsley Jones: 'In my day we'd all just play injured'
Sale's biggest names have moved on, and there's a queue for the physio's room. But as he faces Quins in the Heineken Cup, coach Kingsley Jones tells Chris Hewett why he's happy to stick with home-grown talents
Saturday 12 December 2009
The 22-man Sale squad scrawled in felt-tip pen on the whiteboard behind Kingsley Jones' office desk is hardly the worst: certainly good enough to beat Harlequins in tomorrow's big Heineken Cup pool match at the Stoop, it also has the firepower to give the mighty Toulouse a run for their euros.
"Unfortunately for us," says Jones, grimly, "that's not the team for this weekend. Those were the players too injured to train at the start of the week. I'll be able to pick a few of them, all being well, but most are genuinely buggered and will stay that way for a while yet. It's the name of the game these days."
Jones, who succeeded that quintessential French rugby man Philippe Saint-André as top dog at the end of last season, agrees with many of the theories put forward to explain the calamitous plague of orthopaedic trauma that has swept through the European game since the middle of August, thereby accelerating the development of a new species of professional sportsman: Homo horizontalus. The static rucks, the gang-tackling, the obsession with hitting opponents high rather than low ... all have played their part, he agrees. But he also has a pet theory of his own – semi-serious, perhaps, but far from ridiculous.
"I blame the medical staff," says the Welshman. "They spot everything. In my day, people would carry on for weeks in all sorts of discomfort. You might have a dodgy elbow in September and not mention it until Christmas, when it was too painful to ignore. Now, with the science so advanced, people don't play injured." At which point, one of the Sale conditioning staff pops his head around the door to report a sudden outbreak of back pain affecting half a dozen players. Jones is wearing one of his "see what I mean?" expressions as the news is imparted.
Injuries have caused Sale an immense amount of hassle since Saint-André lured Jones from Doncaster more than five years ago: indeed, the never-ending casualty list has been one of the most significant factors in the club's failure to build on the Guinness Premiership title they won in 2006 after an intelligently planned and ruthlessly executed campaign that threatened to break the Leicester-Wasps domination of the English game once and for all.
"Remember that bloody awful weekend the following season, when Andrew Sheridan and Charlie Hodgson were badly crocked in the same England game, and Jason White went down playing for Scotland?" Jones asks. "I recall sitting at home watching the Ireland-Pacific Islands match on the Sunday and seeing Elvis Seveali'i, who was playing really well for us at the time, make a great tackle. The doorbell went and I answered it. By the time I sat back down, Elvis had been taken off on a stretcher. From then on, we were all over the shop. Some say those injuries set us back a couple of years, and I wouldn't disagree."
By that measure, events at the back end of last season could easily affect the club for a decade. Saint-André's decision to return home as the main man at cash-rich Toulon was no great surprise: as one of rugby's arch-pragmatists, he understands the value of an easily accessed owner's chequebook as well as anyone in the sport. But the loss of three of the world's outstanding players – Sébastien Chabal of France, Luke McAlister of New Zealand and the astonishing Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe of Argentina – together with the likes of White, Sébastien Bruno and Lionel Faure, would have crippled any Premiership team, Leicester and Wasps included.
Under the circumstances, Jones has played a blinder in making this unfamiliar Sale side as hard to beat as they are, and it is fair to suggest that had one or two of the big names stayed, his team might have turned several of their recent nip-and-tuck defeats into narrow victories and established themselves in the top four of the table. How do he and Saint-André get along now? After all, the man Jones wanted to keep above all, Fernandez Lobbe, is now playing his rugby in – you guessed it – Toulon. "We're fine," Jones replies. "Philippe is a great friend of mine and I owe him for the opportunity he gave me. No, I didn't want to lose Juan, but Toulon offered him a mint" – rumoured to be in the region of £300,000 a year, an awful lot for a Puma – "and the bloke had to think of his future, didn't he? But look, I want to do things differently to the way Philippe did them during his time at Sale, and it will take me a while. Philippe is a brilliant networker: he's incredibly good at persuading top players to join him and then building a team around them. If he were still here now, I know exactly what he'd be doing: he'd be knocking on the chairman's door and asking for money to buy. Me? I get more satisfaction from watching a young prop like Jack Forster ram an opponent's head up his arse at the scrum than from watching an expensive import like Carl Hayman do it."
Might Jones also get more of a buzz from winning games in the grand manner, as opposed to kicking his opponents to a slow and agonising death? Saint-André might have been the scorer of the "try from nowhere" that scared England witless on Grand Slam day in 1991 and been the architect of the "try from the end of the earth" that did for the All Blacks in Auckland three years later, but the teams he manages rarely trip the light fantastic. For all their Jonny Wilkinson-driven success in this season's French Top 14 tournament, Toulon's try count is a long way short of stunning.
"I'm really not having a go at Philippe here – people play rugby to win and, when all's said and done, you don't get sacked when you're winning – but when he coached me at Gloucester during the 1990s, I spent entire seasons chasing long kicks," says the former flanker, laughing. "I want to win as much as anyone, but I also want players to enjoy the things they're doing. I think we have the raw materials here to build an exciting side. It's why I want to be at Sale for the long haul."
He understands, however, that long hauls depend on short-term successes, which is why the back-to-back meetings with Quins over the next week are so important. "If we can just find a way to beat them at the Stoop, this Heineken Cup pool will open up for us and we could find ourselves in a quarter-final, which would really accelerate the development of this team," Jones says. "What I'm interested in discovering is whether we can string two big performances together, because that was one of the targets we set ourselves at the start of the season. In last year's Heineken Cup, we beat Clermont Auvergne – a really top side – over in France, against all expectations. It was a seriously good performance, a real achievement for everyone. The trouble was, we celebrated as though we'd won the tournament: people were out all night, legless. There's nothing wrong with having a beer or two, but the next weekend, we were beaten by Munster at home, which undid all the good work. And Munster, one of the most successful teams in Europe, didn't celebrate the way we'd celebrated. It's not what they do.
"Are we more mature now? I'd like to think so. I spoke about this with some of our senior players – Mark Cueto, Charlie Hodgson, Dean Schofield – before our pre-season trip to France and they agreed it was something we should address. The improvement in attitude was immediate. I reckon we must have been the soberest rugby team ever to come back across the Channel."
That being said, Jones will surely treat himself to a quiet half of Old Gutbucket if Sale leave London with a valuable victory. "It's been a hard few months – very hard, if I'm honest," he says. "We've lost games we'd have won had the Whites or the McAlisters or the Fernandez Lobbes still been here. But I've learnt that you can have too many big names in a club, as well as too few. If we can re-establish ourselves with the young, enthusiastic players we're introducing, people who really love this club for what it is, I'll be well happy."
Three to watch: Sale's rising stars
*Jack Forster (22, prop)
Forster was in danger of falling into the "arrested development" category at Gloucester, where first-team opportunities were thin on the ground. Hence his summer move to Sale, who have repaid him with regular Premiership activity. Highly rated and, at 19st, built on the right scale.
*James Gaskell (19, flanker)
Not 20 until May, the 6ft 7in forward from Crewe is a star turn in the making. His second-row performances with England Under-20s at this year's Junior World Cup in Japan confirmed him as a serious talent. Sale, meanwhile are using him as a flanker.
Carl Fearns (20, back row)
Born in Liverpool, the loose forward is becoming a familiar figure in Sale's senior squad. Blooded as a teenager last season, he can operate across the back-row positions and has won representative honours for England at three age-group levels. Played with Gaskell in Japan.
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