Sale's single-minded double act

Frenchman and Welshman masterminds of England's top club side
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The Independent Online

They could be chalk and camembert. Philippe Saint-André's favourite meal is côtes de boeuf et pommes de terre nouvelles. Kingsley Jones prefers chicken with a jacket potato. The Frenchman's favourite drink is a good red wine; Jones cites soda water and lime. Saint-André devours all the newspapers, including L' Equipe. Jones reads nothing.

The odd couple - one a former captain of France, the other an ex-captain of Wales - may as well be riding a bicycle made for two in the North-west of England, where Sale are emerging as the team of the season. Saint-André, a bit of an eccentric, was appointed two years ago as the director of rugby, and once he had found his bearings in Stockport he sent for Jones as his head coach. Both have been around, and their paths crossed at Gloucester in 1998 when they played together at Kingsholm.

Saint-André became the coach, taking over from Richard Hill, and he made Jones the captain. "It's a small world," the Welshman says. "We became friends, perhaps because we were both outsiders in the West Country. We had something in common."

They had an interesting time at Gloucester, where Saint-André introduced a foreign legion of French players with mixed results. "In some quarters Philippe was seen as arrogant, and he played to that," Jones says. "It's a French thing. You call somebody something and they live up to it. He was a young coach, only 31, and may have been a bit naïve, but he's come a long way since then."

As has Jones. While Saint-André went to Bourgoin, Kingsley moved from Kingsholm to Worcester to Pontypridd to Doncaster. He has moved house six times in five years. Doncaster, as ambitious as anything in National League One, had employed him as their player-coach when Philippe came calling. "It wasn't an easy decision because I'd made a commitment to Doncaster," Jones says, "but in the end I couldn't turn it down."

Today Sale, top of the Premier-ship, play Bristol at Edgeley Park and next week entertain the Newport-Gwent Dragons in the Heineken Cup. The Sharks are dominating Pool One and look ready for the deeper waters of the quarter-finals. Last season they were third in the Premiership, losing to Wasps in the play-off, but won the European Challenge Cup.

"That was a good dress rehearsal for the Heineken," Jones says. "We're ready to step up. We're no longer simply taking part and we're not interested in second best. We've moved on from last year and we're still developing. It takes time to learn about each other. The big thing about Philippe is that he wants to be a winner and he knows how to do it. His strategy is second to none."

There are other reasons why Sale have gone from dress rehearsal to rave reviews. They have a pack who can live with anyone. In addition to the likes of Andrew Sheridan, Chris Jones and Jason White they have the Sébastiens, Bruno at hooker and Chabal at No 8, two heavy-duty Frenchmen who have made a big impression.

At half-back they have the Tongan-English partnership of Sililo Martens and Charlie Hodgson, and outside them Jason Robinson, Mark Cueto, Steve Hanley, Mark Taylor and Daniel Larrechea. "In the last six months Charlie's come of age," Jones says. "He's the best ball-in-hand player in the world at the moment. His kicking game is also superb. He's developed a wide range of skills and has become such a threat. It's unfair to compare him with Jonny Wilkinson. You've got to be playing and Jonny hasn't. I don't think Charlie was given a fair run on the Lions tour."

Robinson's retirement from Test rugby has enabled him to concentrate on his role as Sale captain. "Now that he has more time at home with his family he's far more relaxed," Jones says. "He doesn't have to be in five places at once and he's totally focused. He's also a born winner. We have other leaders, like Jason White, who captains Scotland, and he's been a great help."

Although Sale have Robinson's undivided attention, they can lose two thirds of their best team to international calls. Last season they picked up only five points from eight games when their Test players were unavailable. This time, during the autumn internationals they won three out of four matches.

"We can lose 10 players to their countries and last year we didn't have the depth to handle it," Jones says. "It is one of the biggest lessons Philippe and I have learnt. We recruited a bit more quality so the squad can be rotated more effectively. We still want to utilise our best players as often as possible. They're earning good money. What is pleasing is that the academy players are coming through. A number of them played at Llanelli in the Powergen Cup and we lost by a point."

Before injury interrupted his career Jones, who was born in Nantyglo, the old stamping ground of the Wales coach, Mike Ruddock, was an openside flanker for Ebbw Vale and Wales, whom he captained when Graham Henry arrived in the Principality. "Mike lived a couple of hundred yards from me, and when he was a flanker for Swansea I used to watch him running up and down the hill. We keep in touch regularly."

At Ebbw, Jones picked the team, coached them and played. He is still playing, for Stockport's seconds or thirds on a Saturday, not in the back row but at stand-off. "Sale rarely play on a Saturday so I'm free to relive my youth," the 35-year-old Jones said. "It's tremendous fun. I'm a valley boy and it's nice to get back that community feeling."

There is, in fact, a better No 10 in the family. When Jones was 17 he had a son, Rhys, who is making a name for himself. A few weeks ago Rhys helped Wales Under-19s beat Australia, scoring 17 points. Aged 18, Rhys Jones is with the Jets, Sale's highly-rated junior team, where Kingsley can keep an eye on him. Perhaps Charlie should do the same.

Sale Years: From the bottom to the very top

1861: Founded as a rugby union lifeline in the heart of football and rugby league territory. Even when the game went professional 11 seasons ago attendances at the club who produced Fran Cotton, Steve Smith and Tony Bond struggled to reach 1,000.

THE NINETIES: Rose to prominence with promotion to the top flight, first under the Welsh player-coach Paul Turner and then the New Zealander John Mitchell.

2000: Crowds remained low and relegation was a threat until the Scotsman Brian Kennedy, a rugby-playing businessman, took over and rebranded club as Sale Sharks.

2002: Two ex-players, Jim Mallinder and Steve Diamond, took the club to second place and victory in the Parker Pen Shield. Recruits included Jason Robinson, Bryan Redpath and Andrew Sheridan, while junior side produced Charlie Hodgson (left), Mark Cueto, Steve Hanley and Chris Jones.

2003: Moved from Heywood Road to share Edgeley Park with Stockport County.

2004-5: Philippe Saint-André took over as director of rugby in 2004. Third in the Premiership, and won European Challenge Cup. At the top from week one of the current campaign. Poised to reach the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup and crowds at Edgeley Park regularly hit capacity of 10,000.