‘It’s perfect’: Sale’s Ben Curry feeds on underdog status before spicy playoff

Almost everywhere you look at Sale Sharks, there are reminders about the club’s pride at being a geographical outlier in the Premiership. Even the kits Sale’s players will wear in Saturday’s semi-final showdown with Bath feature nods to the northern amateur clubs where some of their homegrown stars made their first steps in rugby.

Emulating Sale’s class of 2006 – the only time in their history they have been crowned champions of England – and bringing the Premiership title back north in the next fortnight could open the door to a whole new generation of rugby fans in an area traditionally dominated by other sports.

And few players among this Sale squad understand the importance of success in the north for rugby union quite like Ben Curry. He moved to the region as a child with his brother, Tom, and the duo sense an opportunity to inspire a new generation of rugby players in the north with success in the playoffs: similar to how they were attracted to the sport growing up.

“I remember when we first moved up here to the north-west when we were kids, my first memories of rugby are really around the time when Sale won the Premiership in 2006,” Ben Curry says. “The people in that team were the people I looked up to, guys like Jason Robinson – and that’s because they won, they were winners.

“They were a good team and it inspired me. I’m sure it inspired loads of other lads too. When you’re in the bubble day to day at your club playing, you may not think about that, but it can’t be understated. At the end of the day, it matters only if we win. It’s on us to inspire through our actions and win.”

To get this far is an achievement within itself, even if Curry insists Sale’s ambitions are far loftier. The Sharks were cast adrift in mid‑table before five successive wins to end the season – including a first ever win at the StoneX Stadium a fortnight ago against Saracens – saw them finish third against all of the odds. However, history remains against them going much further.

Only one of the last 16 Premiership semi-finals have been won by an away side – Harlequins’ unforgettable comeback win at Bristol in 2021 – and the prospect of a trip to the Rec with a place at Twickenham on the line is daunting. Sale were well beaten there as recently as late March.

Does Curry care about the somewhat grim omens? “Nobody has won it from third. Nobody has won it from eighth after 13 rounds … It’s perfect,” he says with a smile. “It’s not necessarily about proving anyone wrong, it’s about expecting better things from ourselves. We have a good squad and we expect better things. We couldn’t care less what anyone else thinks.”

Jason Robinson, pictured in action for Sale in 2007, is one of Ben Curry’s heroes after leading the club to Premiership glory in 2006. Photograph: Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Having only made two Premiership finals in their history before last season, Sale are one win away from back-to-back finals. And as well as the heartbreak of last year’s defeat by Saracens, Curry has a personal wrong to right in the next fortnight, having missed the 2023 Twickenham finale with an injury suffered in the semi-final win against Leicester.

“It only really dawned on me I’d miss the final after it all, when the lads were in Marbella,” the 25-year-old says of a win-or-lose post-match trip the owner, Simon Orange, set up. “I injured it on the Saturday, had surgery on the Thursday and the final was the Saturday. So that week just flew by. Those type of things, those are the memories that I would have loved … I would have enjoyed that Marbella trip.

“I was very proud to watch the team run out last year. It wasn’t about me. I would have loved to have played in it but I loved watching Sale be in a final. If it happens again, it happens again. I just loved watching them in a final.”

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Tom is making a tentative return during the playoffs as he recovers from what was thought to be a season-ending hip injury and has been named among the replacements at the Rec. He and the other injured players in Sale’s squad have played a pivotal role in getting them this far. “I couldn’t speak highly enough of how he’s responded to his injury,” Curry says of his brother.

“Not just from a selfish point of view about getting himself right, but a latter part of how he’s galvanised the squad. He’s really driving the standards. It’s a tough place to be and those lads have tested us unbelievably well in the last eight weeks and he’s been a big part of that.”

The motivation to send Manu Tuilagi – who has been ruled out this weekend with a hamstring problem – out on a high before he departs is also part of Sale’s thinking as they prepare to head south. But having established themselves as one of the Premiership’s leading lights in recent seasons, Curry knows this is the moment where an undoubtedly talented group must take the next step. “It’s all nice being there before, but playoffs rugby is verging on Test match levels of intensity,” he says.

“We had a semi-final two years ago at Exeter and that never felt like we were actual contenders, and last year it felt a bit new. But this year, it’s a lot nicer knowing you’ve been there before and gone through it.

“That definitely helps the squad’s belief in that we’ve been in the position before and been through it. Believing it is one thing, doing it is another.”

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