‘I’ve got a bottle of wine in the car and I’m off to Manu’s house’

Alex Sanderson was set for a farewell glass of wine on Wednesday night with Manu Tuilagi after it was confirmed the previous evening that the midfield powerhouse was quitting the Gallagher Premiership club for a two-year deal with Bayonne in France.

It was last February when the 32-year-old first told the director of rugby that he thought the time was ripe for him to move in from Manchester, his home since his 2020 switch from Leicester.

However, as late as Saturday night in the wake of Tuilagi making his final Test appearance for England, Sanderson was in contact with the centre wishing that he could make something work so that he didn’t have to leave at the end of the 2023/24 season.

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RugbyPass had reported on Saturday morning that Tuilagi would be staying in France after the Guinness Six Nations finale fixture versus France to visit Bayonne on Monday.

He toured the facilities and passed his medical, and a two-year contract was then inked before the transfer was publicly confirmed by Sale on Tuesday evening.

Sanderson held his weekly media briefing on Wednesday ahead of this weekend’s resumption of the Gallagher Premiership after its eight-week break and he explained his emotions around the departure of Tuilagi, with whom he started to work in January 2021 after he succeeded Steve Diamond at the helm.

“I’m still reacting. As I said in my statement, it’s still a wrench in my heart even though together we thought it was the right decision for the club and his family by way of his earnings and the stage in his career.

“I have got a bottle of wine in the car and I’m off to his house after this to level because it [the news] has come out, just to have a chat with him because that is how it started. Well, it started on a hill but we confirmed an extra two years over a glass or two. So fitting, I guess.

“Massive void to fill in terms of the emotional consistency he provides by way of how composed he is and the energy that he gives around the place. That is I would say the biggest challenge aside from his ball carrying and ability to bang.”

Sanderson admitted Sale weren’t close to enticing Tuilagi to stay on a fifth season. “What we could have offered him isn’t what he is worth, so it was just a discussion over a period of conversations and it should be, it’s never a shock.

“It should always be like, ‘What is right for the club, what’s right for you, what’s right for the pathway we have got going on by way of succession’ and he has been part of that process all the way through. What a legend he is. That is why I’m torn.

“Often when it comes down to numbers, which it has, you have to be able to shelve some of your principles for the greater good of the team. If it starts to get easy for me I have probably lost a little bit of my soul. I guess I’ll get a better handle on it but I don’t want it to get any easier.”

Quizzed as to when Tuilagi first told him he would be leaving, Sanderson admitted: “February. Because the move pretty much puts an end to his international career if he wanted to go for big money, clearly no other Premiership club has the money. Like, we don’t have the money. He just said to me, ‘I think it’s time Al’.

“But the certainty that he had got contract was last night [Tuesday]. Like, I’m still chatting to him on Saturday night saying, ‘I wish there was a way’. We’d a few drinks, ‘I wish there was a way’. It happened publicly yesterday so that is why I want to go and get some closure tonight with him.”

Was there a favourite memory in all his time working with Tuilagi? “That first walk I reckon. Shutlingsloe is kind of the highest point in and around Manchester and it was when he was sorting his achilles out.

“It was the first time I got to learn what he was around and where he was in terms of his family structure, what he wanted for his kids – he has got three now. That is when we struck a chord and I understood how I wanted to communicate with him. I’m hoping to make some better memories with him in the next three months.”


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