Leicester and Wasps had dominated English rugby for seven years. The Tigers, under Dean Richards, had claimed four consecutive league titles between 1999 and 2002, while Wasps, under the wily management of Warren Gatland, had taken advantage of the controversial new play-off system to create a dynasty of their own by thrice emerging from second place to capture the title between 2003 and 2005. Frankly, the Premiership was getting boring. It needed a new winner and that team was Sale Sharks. And boy, did they achieve victory in the grandest of manners.
Topping the table by a clear six points, Philippe Saint-Andre’s Sharks first had to face defending champions Wasps in a tense semi-final at a packed Edgeley Park. As lock forward Dean Schofield recalls, it was to be the acid test. He said: “We’d won the league and knew we were on the verge of creating something special. But we still had that little bit of fear it would all go wrong and Wasps were the masters of timing their run at the end of the season. No team had topped the league and won the play-offs, but we had momentum and that rollercoaster is difficult to stop.
“It had been a long campaign and losing in the semi-finals would have been horrific. But we were a good team. We had a great back row in Magnus Lund, Jason White and Sebastien Chabal and our strength was in our forwards. Philippe’s philosophy was for us to keep going forward through our big ball carriers around the corner. It was carrier after carrier after carrier, and then we had superstars like Mark Cueto and Jason Robinson to finish things off. We stepped things up against Wasps and put them away, setting up that Twickenham final against a world-class Leicester side.”
Leicester’s winning pedigree meant they were installed as favourites, but those odds tipped dramatically when Twickenham awoke to grey skies and incessant rain. The outlook was grim, but for Sale, cocooned in their Pennyhill Park base, it was manna from heaven. “We didn’t care about the rain,” says Schofield. “We had our big pack and we’d slugged it out in the mud at places like Bath and battled all season, so we knew we had the weapons to win that final. And with Charlie Hodgson pulling the strings behind, we were extremely confident going in.”
Sale’s confidence was well placed and they made the perfect start when, after Hodgson had notched an early penalty, Cueto benefitted from a fortunate ricochet to pounce for the opening try. Tigers responded quickly through a Lewis Moody try but were struggling in the conditions, and it came as no surprise when Sharks, excellently marshalled by Hodgson, increased their lead to 23-10 at the break courtesy of marvellous scores from Lund and Oriol Ripol. Game over?
“When Ripol scored you just got the feeling it was going to be our day,” Schofield said. “There was no way Leicester were coming back. They never gave up but Charlie kept knocking over the penalties to keep us well in front, Richard Wigglesworth was a revelation at scrum-half, bossing our big pack around, and when Chris Mayor scored a breakaway try near the end, we clinched victory by 25 points, which is about as comprehensive as you can get in a game of that magnitude.”
The mould had finally been broken. For the first time in four years the side that finished top of the Premiership had actually gone on to lift the trophy, the Leicester-Wasps axis had been torn asunder and, as an aside, Sale captain Robinson became the first man to become a grand final winner in both Rugby Union and Rugby League, having claimed the latter with Wigan in 1998. The scintillating Sharks had come up smelling of roses and all that remained was to celebrate in style.
Schofield added: “To beat Leicester the way we did, by wiping them off the park, was something special. So special, in fact, that it’s the only shirt I’ve got hung up in my house. For everyone involved – players, coaches, staff, supporters and our owner, Brian Kennedy – it was a hugely proud moment, and it was certainly the pinnacle of my career. We went to a London nightclub after, which was a bit of a failure really. Steve Hanley had organised it but it was the most poncey, expensive place you could imagine – far too glitzy for us – so we went back to Pennyhill Park.
“The celebrations continued long into the night. I remember being sat in the hot tub with the French boys sipping champagne at 7am, which I shouldn’t have been doing as I was due to join up with the England Saxons that day. I turned up a bit jaded but I think they understood!”
1. Lionel Faure: Joined Clermont Auvergne in 2009. Now retired and works for AXA.
2. Andy Titterrell: Moved to Gloucester in 2007 before spells at Leeds and Edinburgh. Now at London Welsh and runs his own fitness company.
3. Stuart Turner: Left Sale to join Caldy as player-coach in 2009 and is still there, now head coach since 2010.
4. Chris Jones: Joined Worcester in 2011, where he still plays.
5. Ignacio Fernandez Lobbe: Moved to Northampton in 2008, then had a season at Bath in 2010-11 before heading home to Argentina, where he coaches URBA.
6. Jason White: Joined Clermont Auvergne in 2009 and retired in 2012. Now back in Scotland coaching Watsonians.
7. Magnus Lund: Left in 2008 for Biarritz, where he still plays.
8. Sebastien Chabal: The legendary ‘Seabass’ departed for Racing Metro in 2009, before joining Lyon in 2012, where the bearded one is still going strong.
9. Richard Wigglesworth: Tempted south by Saracens in 2010, where he still plays.
10. Charlie Hodgson: Joined Wiggleworth at Saracens in 2011.
11. Oriol Ripol: Departed for Worcester in 2010 but retired a year later and is now an ambassador for Klas International Ltd.
12. Elvis Seveali’i: Joined London Irish in 2008, then had spells at Bourgoin and Rovigo, where he played last season.
13. Mark Taylor: Moved to the Ospreys in 2007 before retiring in 2008. Now a chartered accountant and was team manager of Wales U20s during the summer.
14. Mark Cueto: The last surviving relic of the 2006 team still playing at the club.
15. Jason Robinson: Retired in 2007 before enduring a spell as Sale head coach in 2009-10. Then had a year playing for Fylde and is now a director for PROSKINS and ambassador for HSBC.
Sebastien Bruno (for Titterrell): Joined Toulon in 2009, where he still plays.
Barry Stewart (for Turner): Joined Northampton in 2007 but forced to retire in 2009. Now an investment manager for Brewin Dolphin in Edinburgh.
Dean Schofield (for Lobbe): Moved to Toulon in 2010 and then Worcester two years later. Still going strong.
Ben Foden (for Wigglesworth): In 2008 he joined Northampton, where he finally accepted Saint-Andre’s view that he was a full-back-in-waiting.
Valentin Courrent (for Seveali’i): Joined Toulouse that summer, then had spells at Biarritz and Agen and is now at Grenoble.
Chris Mayor (for Taylor): Moved to Northampton in 2008, then had a year at GRAN Parma before joining Wasps in 2011.
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