Redpath charts the flair path

Sale are blazing their way through the Premiership - it should be no surprise, declares their dynamo
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The Independent Online

Only the signing of Edward Scissorhands at inside-centre could provide the Sale three-quarter line with a finer cutting edge. There are sharp operators wherever you look, from Jason Robinson at fullback to Bryan Redpath at scrum-half.

Nothing new there. Sabre-rattling from the cavalry has long been a characteristic of the Cheshire club, cue the high-scoring wings Mark Cueto and Steve Hanley, but this season they are offering a whole lot more.

Sale, all-conquering in the Zurich Premiership going into today's match against Leeds at Headingley, have the meanest defence in the league, thanks to an average of 127 tackles per game. While Charlie Hodgson has kicked 11 goals out of 14, they have also conceded the fewest penalties. Philippe Saint-André, appointed dir-ector of rugby last March, has transformed the pack with the recruitment of the two Sébastiens: Bruno, a hooker from Bèziers, and Chabal, a flanker from Bourgoin, and Trevor Woodman from Gloucester and Fernandez Lobbe from Castres.

The transfer of seven players to Saracens looks like being the sale of the season, if not the century. "There's no doubt that the people who have come in have given the squad an edge,'' Redpath said. "I knew from our pre-season form that they would fit in. Philippe has been very thorough. He wants people to be responsible for their actions. The players are listening to him and working for him. Good on him. He's doing all right.''

Redpath is not doing too badly either. At the age of 33, he is in his fifth season with Sale and has put down such deep roots in Knutsford, the sort of area where you might expect to rub shoulders in a wine bar with an employee of Manchester United, that he cannot see himself moving back to Scotland. "It's a lovely area and the people are lovely. It would be a big wrench to leave.''

He probably would never have arrived but for an extraordinary experience in France. Redpath's background was classically Scottish. The youngest of three rugby-playing brothers, he was born in Galashiels, educated at Kelso High School and was the captain of an ultra-successful Melrose side in 1997. He was the Edinburgh scrum-half five years ago when he decided to make a break for it.

Scotland had problems filling some positions but had produced three outstanding scrum-halves in Gary Armstrong, Andy Nicol and Redpath. "It suddenly dawned on me that I was only in Scotland to play for Scotland, and sometimes I wasn't selected," he said. "If somebody had said to me, 'How are you enjoying your professional career?' I'd have said it was all right, but I'd only played for Edinburgh and I'd never lived outside Scotland. I needed to challenge myself, see other places and see if I could handle it.''

Redpath sold up and joined Narbonne. "I was really enjoying it... the club, the people, the place.'' And then Narbonne made the fatal mistake of short-changing a Scotsman. "They took 15 per cent from our monthly salaries because we hadn't made the top six in the championship. I was playing as well as ever, and then you lose a game and discover they'd taken money from you. I'm old-fashioned in that what you sign for is what you get.''

Brian Kennedy, the chairman of Sale, rang Redpath in France and offered him a two-year contract. He signed on for another two years and then another two, even though in the summer he had operations on both shoulders. Redpath retired from international rugby last year, bowing out as captain of the Scotland team who lost to Australia in the quarter-finals of the World Cup.

With 60 appearances, 25 of them as captain, he is Scotland's most capped scrum-half. "They asked me to stay for one more year to help the younger players coming through, but I felt I'd done my job.'' With three children aged from two to six, he has family commitments and unfinished business with Sale.

Three seasons ago they were second in the Premiership and won the Parker Pen Challenge Cup in Europe. "The success probably came too quickly,'' Redpath said. "We didn't have the squad to build on it. Now we can rotate players in key positions and are ready to move on again.''

When Hodgson and Redpath take a breather they can be replaced by the American Mike Hercus and the Tongan Sililo Martens, who was signed this season from the disbanded Celtic Warriors.

Sale finished seventh last season, missing out on qualification for the Heineken Cup, but have made their best start since playing in the second division 12 years ago. Their marketing people have come up with a new line: "Rugby to set your heart racing''.

Robinson has taken over the captaincy, although many of the decisions, certainly in calling the moves, are taken by Redpath and his partner Hodgson. "Jason can inspire the team by doing what only Jason can do, pulling things out of a hat,'' Redpath said. "At meetings he talks very well, but we don't want him to get too caught up in the captaincy. He has to concentrate on his own game. When I first captained Scotland I got too involved in the whole thing and allowed it to affect my performances.''

Scotland, like Ireland, want their players based at home. "It's attractive in theory but difficult to enforce,'' Redpath said. "I'm not sure they have the money in Scotland to run three professional teams. There's a great standard in England, and it could be argued that Scots who play here are well prepared for international rugby. It should be the choice of the player.''

In the close season, Redpath worked with the rugby league club St Helens, giving a masterclass in the art of passing. "Individual coaching may be a growth area, and it's something I might get involved in when I retire," he said. "I'll see how this season goes. If the game becomes a chore, either physically or mentally, I will know that it's time to move on. At the moment, I'm thoroughly enjoying it.''