Even the most ardent of rugby league die-hards may have had their interest piqued by Sunday’s Gallagher Premiership clash between Sale Sharks and Wasps given some of the familiar faces involved.
The encounter at the AJ Bell Stadium saw Paul Deacon, assisted by another former star of the 13-man code in defence coach Mike Forshaw, take charge of his third game as Sale’s interim head coach against a Wasps side where another of his contemporaries Martin Gleeson now serves as assistant attack coach.
Former league players crossing rugby’s divide as coaches is nothing new in the professional era. Indeed, Shaun Edwards, now part of the French national team set-up, has come to be regarded as the foremost exponent of the defensive arts since switching to union in 2001.
But while the likes of Edwards and Forshaw were recruited to help out on the defensive side, the trend in recent years has been more towards skills and attack as the man who recommended ex-Bradford Bulls and Wigan Warriors half-back Deacon to former Sale boss Steve Diamond in 2015 explained.
“They’ve kind of transferred from the defence side,” Forshaw told Sky Sports. “If you look at how they play in rugby union, they’re trying to play with a bit more shape like in rugby league.
“So, they’ve gone from the defence role to picking the brains of some of the attacking players – particularly the players who’ve played as half-backs and would have played that game-plan out.
“Paul Deacon was a recommendation from me because Brian Redpath left to go to Leeds and Steve Diamond didn’t know where to go.
They’ve gone from the defence role to picking the brains of some of the attacking players – particularly the players who’ve played as half-backs and would have played that game-plan out.
Sale defence coach Mike Forshaw
“I said ‘there’s a guy in Wigan who’s a very smart bloke and would pick this game up pretty quickly’, which he did.”
Gleeson, who won Super League Grand Finals with both St Helens and Wigan as a player, has shown a similar aptitude for coaching in the 15-man code since joining Wasps ahead of the 2019/20 season from his role as assistant at Salford Red Devils.
Initially the former centre worked alongside Lee Blackett looking after the attacking side and backs division at the Coventry-based club, impressing the man who later succeeded Dai Young as head coach and becoming one of his trusted advisors alongside defence coach Ian Costello.
“He has been brilliant, bringing fresh ideas and approaches,” Blackett, then attack and backs coach, said soon after Gleeson joined the club last year. “He’s brilliant for me as a coach as he questions absolutely everything; coming from a different sport helps as well.
“He makes you really think about what you’re delivering and has come in with a fresh set of ideas. There’s some stuff which you question, but all of a sudden you start working on it and you see how good it is.
“The fresh ideas he’s brought have been refreshing, not just for me but for the boys as well.”
Wasps’ attacking game was a vital component of their run to the 2020 Premiership final as they scored 81 tries and collected a league-highest 12 try-scoring bonus points, statistics which were both up from the team’s 56 and seven respectively in 2018/19.
Blackett’s elevation to head coach has seen Gleeson given more freedom to plot Wasps’ attacking strategy too and the 40-year-old is pleased to be able to implement his own ideas – a lack of opportunity to do just that having frustrated his ex-Saints team-mate Sean Long, now back in Super League with Leeds Rhinos, during his 14 months at Harlequins.
“We both may slightly differ on how we get the best outcome, but he’s been a really good influence and since he’s [Blackett] taken over he’s just let me crack on with the attack,” Gleeson told The Rugby Paper last month.
“If I ever need advice he’s there and Ian Costello’s a good man as well when it comes to defence, so we’re an open group and that breeds a lot of confidence.”
Sunday’s match was one where unstructured play rather than meticulously planned moves came to the fore for Wasps, with Charlie Atkinson’s dummy opening a gap for him to dot down followed by Tom Cruse finishing after Alfie Barbeary won a turnover in Sale’s 22.
Otherwise though, they were repelled by Forshaw’s suffocating defence and even forced back on several occasions, although Lima Sopoaga’s kicking helped seal a 26-23 win for the visitors.
I obviously have to think about a lot more things now which I haven’t had to before, and it takes time, but I’ve enjoyed that and I’m looking forward to getting my teeth stuck into it.
Paul Deacon on stepping up to interim head coach
Sale’s two tries came from well-worked attacking moves and were superbly finished by winger Marland Yarde, showcasing the free and positive approach at the right time Deacon wants the team to embrace, although the boss was left to rue errors and lapses which he felt proved costly to his side.
But having been handed the top job following Diamond’s shock decision to step down just over three weeks ago, the 41-year-old is enjoying having the opportunity to be head coach after serving a five-year apprenticeship in the world of rugby union.
“I obviously have to think about a lot more things now which I haven’t had to before, and it takes time, but I’ve enjoyed that and I’m looking forward to getting my teeth stuck into it,” Deacon said recently.
“The biggest change for me personally is that everything is always on your mind. There are always people to talk to, players to talk to, decisions to make and I want those things done correctly and in the right way and I pride myself on that.
“One thing I need to make sure is that I do get some down time myself and don’t burn myself out in order to keep those standards.”
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