Steve Diamond: 'People think I'm stupid for coming back – but I can turn Sale around'

Diamond could be preparing Russia for the World Cup but instead he's back home. He has no regrets, he tells Chris Hewett
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The Independent Online

Steve Diamond describes himself as "case hard": a description that works equally well, if not better, with the words in a different order. Either way, it is best not to argue. Sale's new executive director of sport – "It's the longest bloody title in rugby," mutters one of his colleagues on the back-room staff, suggesting that the former hooker must have "business cards the size of advertising hoardings" – is formidably equipped for the long fight ahead of him at Edgeley Park, having returned to his native North-west from one of the more remote, not to say forbidding, outposts of the union game.

"When you talk about rugby in Russia, you're basically talking about rugby in Siberia," said Diamond, who coached the national team to a place in this year's World Cup and would have guided them through the tournament had Sale, his old club, not come knocking on the door of the house he built for himself the last time he was out of work. "Krasnoyarsk. That's the place. Russia gave Ireland a good contest there back in 2002 and it's the great stronghold of the game in those parts. When you're trying to do a job in Krasnoyarsk, surrounded by people who don't speak a word of English, you tend to discover just how resourceful you can be. Mind you, not even Siberia prepared me for the game we played against Georgia this time last year. That was something else entirely."

Extreme tension between the two countries, who had been at war a few months earlier, resulted in them playing a European Nations Cup match on neutral territory in Trabzon, a Turkish city on the Black Sea. "You can't begin to imagine the level of hostility," Diamond continues. "I defy anyone to say they've experienced rugby in a more charged environment. The only Russians in the stadium that day were the players and staff. Then there was me, Jos Baxendell (the long-serving Sale back who was helping his old clubmate with the coaching) and Mike Miller from the International Rugby Board. Everyone else, including the entire crowd, was Georgian. There were guns everywhere: even our coach driver was armed. At times like that, you think: 'Thank Christ I have a British passport in my bag."

Under the circumstances, restoring England's leading northern club to health and prosperity after the privations and humiliations of the last couple of years should be child's play. Diamond spent his top-level playing career in the middle of the Sale front row – 300 games as near as dammit, every last one of them a test of mind, body and spirit – and coached the team with Jim Mallinder until 2004, when the owner, Brian Kennedy, decided that Philippe Saint-André, the master team-builder from France, was the man to take the club onwards and upwards. If Diamond felt the need to go elsewhere at that point, he left something of himself behind. "I feel I know enough about this place to understand how it's meant to work," he says.

While Saint-André delivered the thing Kennedy most wanted – a Premiership title, secured in the grand manner at Twickenham with victory over Leicester in 2006 – he left nothing in the way of a legacy when Toulon, awash with money, lured him back to France three years later. The team he constructed – or, to be more accurate, bought – fell apart more quickly than a garden shed in a hurricane, not least because he took some of the very best players with him to Provence. Kingsley Jones, his successor, was up against it from the start, and while the Welshman kept Sale in the top flight last season, it was a close-run thing.

"Some people think I'm stupid, coming back here now," acknowledges Diamond, who, during his time coaching the Russians, had a nice little sideline here in England, acting as a recruitment agent for Northampton, now in the charge of his long-time mucker Mallinder. "They look at how successful Northampton have become, they look at Russia's qualification for the World Cup, and they ask: 'Why do this when it would have been so easy to keep doing all that?' But I love the idea of taking this on. It's 10 years to the week since I first started coaching Sale and my enthusiasm for the place is a great as it ever was.

"There were things happening here back in '04 that I wasn't happy with, but rugby is a small world and you can't afford to go round burning bridges. My relationship with Brian was never broken – I've always admired his passion – and I think we've both grown up a bit since then. When he approached me and told me he wanted me to come back and do things my way, it didn't take me long to reach a decision. We still share common goals.

"What did I find when I returned? Rudderless players and a structure that wasn't fit for purpose. Winning the Premiership title was a tremendous achievement, but it cost Brian a lot of money and the period of success was very short. I don't do short-term. I'm interested in longevity, in sustainability. In my view, the approaches taken by some coaches in recent years were not right for the club.

"My first job is to put things on a sound footing by addressing some basics, and if I get that right, people will see the results quite quickly. A number of players who are here now won't be here next season, but with the exception of Charlie Hodgson [the England outside-half who is ending an 11-year association with the club to join Saracens], all those leaving will be doing so because we haven't offered them a contract.

"As for those coming in, they will all know exactly where they stand. We won't be paying bonuses, we won't be guaranteeing image-right payments. They'll be on a salary, like the rest of us. This is a £10m business we're running here, not a £100m business."

For much of this season the bottom three places in the Premiership table have been occupied by the three northern teams, and it is certain that one of them, probably Leeds, will be relegated. Those who consider geographical spread to be essential to the development of professional club rugby fear that if the present trend continues, Leicester will soon mark the northern frontier of the union code. Diamond hears the argument and understands the concern. What he does not do is mistake the prophecy of doom for a certainty waiting to happen.

"I don't have the precise statistics, but as far as I'm aware, a significant percentage of the players capped by England over the last century or so were schooled up here in the north," he says. "We ooze talent, and when I look at this particular area of the north-west, I'm in no doubt as to the potential for growth. Who are the people making Northampton tick? I'll tell you three of them: Ben Foden, Chris Ashton and Stephen Myler, all of whom went to Franklin's Gardens from this area. A lot of good clubs have a strong northern element.

"You'll see a very different team here next season, but I think it will be competitive. I've been pretty active in recruitment since I arrived and I've gone for a specific character type: all the people I'm bringing in are young, ambitious and very hard-working." And the coaching? Who will perform the lion's share of the tracksuit duties? "I'll do some of it myself, but I'm definitely in the hunt for a head coach. Whoever I bring in will have to get to grips with the culture. I'm the one setting the tone here now, and I won't move away from it."

Today, Sale travel to Northampton, of all places, and if the game goes to form, Diamond will be left wondering if his recruitment work on behalf of the Midlanders was not a little too successful. Meanwhile, his predecessor at Sale, the aforementioned Mr Jones, is working with the Russians. Rugby moves in mysterious ways, its wonders to perform.

"As I say, it's a small world," Diamond says. "But Sale is the part I know best and I think I can turn it around. Yes, the last couple of seasons have been difficult, but for most of the professional era we've been a top-six side. With a little good management and a proper sense of direction, we'll be back soon enough."