As the greatest showmen of Harlequins prepare to conjure up another glorious spectacle they are about to be forcibly reminded that rugby is not a beauty contest. Along with everyone else Sale’s director of rugby, Alex Sanderson, hugely enjoyed Quins’ thrilling demolition of Bristol last week but he is keen to see a much earthier type of game in Salford on Friday.
Even Sale’s owners have been asking this week why the Sharks do not simply copy Quins’ crowd-pleasers and seek to woo neutrals to the AJ Bell Stadium with their glorious attacking intent but, with Manu Tuilagi and Tom Curry back starting, Sanderson firmly believes home fans will be similarly entertained by a no-nonsense portion of northern pragmatism if it helps to send Marcus Smith and co back home empty-handed.
While Smith, Alex Dombrandt and André Esterhuizen, in particular, were irresistible against Bristol, Sanderson rejects the popular view that Quins’ brand of rugby should be the way forward for every Premiership team. “It’s attractive, fun, sparkly and shiny but part of a coach’s role, as I perceive it, is to make some of the unsexy stuff sexy,” Sanderson said. “It can’t just be about showmanship, the glory and the tries, otherwise we’ve lost something in the game. There have to be elements that appeal not just to the general public but to prop forwards or the guy who was too fat to play football at school. There’s a place in rugby for him as well.”
Which is why differing styles, in Sanderson’s view, remain such a vital part of the game. As he also points out, the thunderous prospect of Tuilagi and Esterhuizen running full tilt at each other can be every bit as dramatic as a try-a-minute frolic with optional defending: “Resilience and resolve are also brilliant parts of the game. I’d hate to think it’s only about end-to-end rugby.
“I really enjoyed last Friday, and I watched it thinking: ‘This is mega’. But I was also getting really frustrated in the second half because you’re not going to beat Quins at that type of game. We haven’t said: ‘We’re going to drag them into a shit fight’ but there are opposing philosophies here. It’s about us understanding what our DNA is and forcing that on them. There are elements to our game that, if we get them right, can be extremely entertaining.”
Without a win in their last three matches, Sale are equally mindful that fixating on Smith, who guided Quins from 21-0 down to their 52-24 win over Bristol, risks their defence being cut apart elsewhere. “If you make it all about Marcus that’s probably when he’s at his best. People come out of the defensive line to go and get him and take their eyes off other players. We can negate some of their strengths without making it all about him.”
Sanderson also believes his players will be motivated by a desire to see off opponents who, on occasions, have been known to rub a few people up the wrong way. “I’ve used it to emotionally fuel teams in the past,” admits Sanderson. “They’re brash sometimes and in your face. They celebrate at the opposition and not to themselves; that’s just them. I don’t think it’s a weakness of theirs, I think it empowers them but it’s not how I go about it. It’s brilliant to have a contrast in the game and I respect it but it’s not something I can align myself with.”
Quins, either way, will not be abandoning their sense of ambition with Esterhuizen describing Smith as “probably the best fly-half I’ve played with in my life”. The big Springbok centre is also relishing the chance to measure himself up against the returning Tuilagi.
“A lot of teams think that when the pressure’s on you have to go back to being conservative and keeping things simple,” said Esterhuizen. “We are the complete opposite. When things get tough we just go at it more and go for crazy stuff.”