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HomeNewsSale Sharks: Raffi Quirke and Sam James on Sale's fight for Manchester...

Sale Sharks: Raffi Quirke and Sam James on Sale’s fight for Manchester limelight

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Raffi Quirke arriving at the AJ Bell Stadium
Quirke won two England caps in November 2021 but his progress has been hindered since by hamstring and wrist injuries
Date: Sunday, 14 May Kick-off: 15:00 BST Venue: AJ Bell Stadium
Coverage: Live commentary on BBC Radio Manchester and BBC Radio Leicester

Football and music. Raffi Quirke doesn’t need reminding of Manchester’s twin obsessions.

“When Cristiano Ronaldo first came back to United and scored you could hear the crowd shouting ‘Siu!’ from my house,” the Sale scrum-half tells BBC Sport.

“When there are gigs at Old Trafford or the cricket ground, it is super loud, you can hear it from the back garden.”

It doesn’t stop there.

Manchester United legend George Best’s first digs were in his same Chorlton suburb. Factory Records boss Tony Wilson’s final resting place is in the local cemetery. The Bee Gees went to primary school down the road. ‘Busby babe’ Duncan Edwards played tennis in the park.

As a teenager, Quirke played football for a local team. He still goes to watch United from time to time. His group chat gets lively when they play.

But his path was always going to be different.

Quirke’s uncle Patrick played for Sale back in the amateur days. As a kid, Quirke would read the match reports his grandmother had framed on the wall.

When a five-year-old Quirke was taken down to local club Broughton Park, his father Saul was enthusiastic enough to offer to coach the team.

What the Quirkes found was a seam of unrefined talent.

“We had a group of lads who probably hadn’t played much rugby from a lot of random places and loads of different backgrounds,” remembers Quirke.

“Lads would turn up just before kick-off with no boots and my dad would have to try and sort them out.

“But it was a class team. When we were younger we had an unbeaten season and scored hundreds of tries.

“There was so much potential there, some unbelievable players. Kofi Reid was this rapid winger; tall, quite lean, skinny.

“You would never know when he was gong to turn up at a game.

“We played against Manchester Rugby Club one time. He turned up and scored a length-of-the-field try, running past these proper rugby players who played at school all the time, who were in Sale Academy and the like, with his middle finger up, because he didn’t care.

“One of the boys was called Kieran Brodie, he’s moved to Australia now, but he was so solid, he would run through a brick wall.

“I will never forget that group of players, even though we didn’t win every week when we got older, they are all still my brothers.

“So many of them, with proper coaching and probably better lifestyle choices sometimes, could go really far.”

As he got older Quirke realised why, perhaps, they hadn’t.

In England age-grade squads, Quirke found he was one of the few players still at state school.

For others, money ironed out the difficulties that hampered his Broughton Park team-mates.

“Some kids could ask their parents for this or that, whatever they want, but the lads at Broughton Park would have to work really hard, earn money and that sort of thing,” he remembers.

“There were other distractions in their lives. Some would have younger siblings they would have to look after on a weekend while their parents worked, so weren’t available for games.

“It wasn’t necessarily trouble or anything, just sometimes they had to be father figures.”

At 16, Quirke had the option to leave Manchester behind and take up rugby scholarship offers from several boarding schools. He didn’t take long to make his decision.

“It was quite straightforward,” he says. “I visited a few places, but I spoke with my dad, and I wanted to make it without going through a private school.

“I wanted to go my route instead so that other people can do the same, so my little brother doesn’t think he has to go to Kirkham or Sedbergh or wherever to make it as a professional rugby player.”

Quirke says representing Manchester, Chorlton and his old team-mates on the pitch hasn’t been a motivation so far in his career.

“Now you say it though, I will probably think about it a little bit more.”

Manu Tuilagi and Simon Orange
Manu Tuilagi and Sale co-owner Simon Orange celebrate after a win away to Gloucester in April confirmed Sale’s home semi-final

This weekend it will be hard to ignore. Sale are the sole northern representative in the Premiership semi-finals.

If they beat defending champions Leicester at the AJ Bell Stadium on Sunday, they will be in the final for the first time since Jason Robinson and Sebastien Chabal lifted the trophy for Sale in 2006.

Quirke, only four at the time, doesn’t remember that day. But team-mate Sam James does. Vividly.

James was a ball boy at Edgeley Park – Sale’s previous home – on the night of their 2006 semi-final win over Wasps.

“I did it for three years down there and my last was the year they won it,” says James.

“I grew up idolising those guys, stood at the side of the pitch, drying balls for them, looking at them towering over me and thinking ‘that is where I want to be one day’.”

James was born a mile down the road from Quirke. He too chose to stay in his city and at his school.

Considering the infrequency of England matches away from Twickenham – there have been two in Manchester in Quirke’s lifetime and he attended both – Sale are critical in spreading the game in the north-west.

Sam James stretches to score a try against Newcastle
James came off the bench to score two tries in last weekend’s 54-12 home win over Newcastle

“With Worcester and Wasps gone, it is a big gulf between the north and south now,” James adds.

“It is a massive thing for us to create a community. We want to be a powerhouse up here, we want to inspire the next generation and nothing grabs attention more than winning a trophy.”

In Manchester, where football and music dominate and the distractions are many, silverware is the currency that cuts through. This year, Sale aim to deliver.

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