Steve Diamond is forever telling it straight
Outspoken Sale chief executive admits to Chris Hewett that putting a tracksuit back on and dishing out a few choice words was 'a necessary evil' brought about by club's plight
When Steve Diamond is really in the mood for a row – if it does not occur quite as often as most rugby folk imagine, it is not exactly a rarity either – he can make Malcolm Tucker, the magnificently profane spin doctor at the heart of television's political satire The Thick Of It, sound like Rupert Bear. By all accounts, his berating of the Sale players following their calamitous defeat to London Welsh towards the back end of last month was a modern masterpiece of Chaucerian invective, and there was a moment last weekend when the verbal tide again threatened to drown everyone within earshot.
Happily for maiden aunts everywhere, the Greater Manchester club's multi-tasking chief executive, executive director of sport and interim forwards coach does not offer a verbatim account of his response to the first-half performance against Cardiff Blues in the Heineken Cup. "Basically, I asked them what the f…" a split-second's pause – "what the effing hell they thought they were doing, coming into the home dressing room 24-12 down," he recalls. "I said: 'Are you really going to sit there and tell me that as professionals on good wages, you don't have the balls to get out there and take this game by the scruff of the neck?'
"There comes a point, doesn't there? At a certain stage in proceedings, you have to tell it how it is. You see, I'm no good at lying: in fact, I can't remember the last time I told a lie, it's that long since I gave it up. There's been a lot of talk about the coaches we've let go in mid-season [Tony Hanks back in March, Steve Scott after the London Welsh game] but when the decision has been made – it's not always mine alone, but I'm more than happy to take the flak for it – I like to tell people to their faces. That's my style. You have to remember that I know what it's like to lose my job with no one saying a word. The way Saracens got rid of me in '06 put me off rugby for two years. I prefer to take criticism straight, and that's how I give it."
It is not entirely certain that Hanks and Scott appreciated this forthright approach as much as Diamond might have done had the boot been on the other foot, but there is little doubt that he pressed the right buttons last weekend, not least with Danny Cipriani, who had spent 40 miserable minutes watching events from the bench. "I said to Dan at half-time: 'Right, when you get on the field, play to structure in our own half but attack like hell in Cardiff territory. We have to win this game somehow and we're not going to do it by kicking penalties.'" Cipriani promptly scored a try, created another with a pass straight out of the Juan Martin Hernandez book of extra-special brilliance and generally ran the Welshmen ragged. Sale won, by a point – their first victory in seven attempts this season.
"The thing with Danny is that he's an emotional kid who hasn't quite fixed himself in anywhere," Diamond says. "He's a fantastic talent, obviously: there aren't many outside-halves who can do what he does in the attacking sense, and we'll build this club on players like him. Andy Powell [the Wales No 8 and Lions tourist who is also blessed with what might euphemistically be termed a wayward streak] is another, isn't he? We know we're not dealing with a pair of Popes here, but if we handle them right and they do right by us, it will work for everyone. I'm sure of that. In Danny's case, he just needs to settle into the way of life in the Manchester area. I may have to tell him he's living with me for a while." The mind boggles.
Diamond returned to tracksuit duties after dispensing with Scott's services as forwards coach. "It's not as if I wanted to do it," he says. "I have a much bigger role, which includes driving the club forward commercially. If I take my eye off that side of things, we'll all be stuffed. But what do you do when you've lost six on the bounce? What do you do when a Sale team are booed off the field by their own supporters, as they were after the London Welsh game? I'd never known it happen in all my time here – and I've been at the club for many years, on and off. So it was a necessary evil. I had no choice but to go back, get closer to the team and generate some passion.
"I was very aware of the danger of leaving it too late. Newcastle were in strife for the whole of last season, but by the time they brought in Gary Gold to dig them out of the hole, there were only about eight Premiership games left to play. Not enough. He did a bloody good job for them, but the timescale was too short. It's my view that we absolutely have to be off the bottom of the table by Christmas. If we aren't, we'll be in trouble. We're already in a dog-fight, but the fight will be that much nastier if we don't make a move now.
"Which is where the Heineken Cup comes in. Some might have expected us to field weakened sides in Europe because of the need to concentrate on our Premiership performance, but we worked our tits off to qualify for this competition and I'm not willing to toss the opportunity away. A win in Montpellier this weekend would give our confidence another important lift."
Not for a second did Diamond see his coaching return as anything more than a short-term measure. Knowing that his old clubmate John Mitchell, the former England forwards strategist and All Blacks head honcho, was on his way out of South Africa after a major crossing of swords with the Johannesburg-based Lions provincial side – a side he led to the Currie Cup title last term – the former hooker quickly made his pitch. This made relations with Bryan Redpath, who joined Sale as rugby director during the summer, just a little delicate: while Mitchell is currently on board as a consultant, his formal position, when contractual matters are topped and tailed, will be very senior indeed.
Discussions with Redpath were duly held and as things stand, the former Scotland scrum-half is staying on board. This will free up Diamond to leave the micro work behind and refocus his attention on the macro stuff: the continuing improvements to the training base in Carrington, the ever-increasing commercial workload, the important task of making Salford City Stadium, the club's new home ground, the centrepiece of a rugby union resurgence in the north-western reaches of England.
"That's my real cup of tea: the vision thing," he says. "I can do the rugby stuff. I took Saracens into Europe, I've taken Sale into Europe, I took Russia to the World Cup for the first time. If you give me a hundred grand a year and tell me to produce a pack of forwards, you'll get a pack of forwards. But I'm not great at sustaining my interest in a narrow project. I'm more interested in the big ideas and striding forward, with good people filling in behind me with all the detail. In my eyes, what we're doing at Sale isn't just about the club. It's about an entire region, about the wider geography of the game in this country."
At one point in the discussion, Diamond flicks open his laptop. "Let me show you this," he says proudly, as his latest address to the players – a call to arms composed in the form of a prose poem, complete with musical accompaniment – scrolls down to the bottom of the screen and back up again. The words were not so striking as to knock T S Eliot off his literary perch, but they were rather clever in their own way: read downwards, they amounted to an acceptance of failure; read upwards, they were a fierce declaration of intent.
His message in replaying it is clear, but he regardless spells it out anyway. "It had quite an effect on the squad," he explains.
"There was silence in the room when they watched it. I might be a blunt bastard, but I'm not as uneducated as some people like to make out."
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