Ben Bamber: Two years ago I was stacking crates of wine – now I’m playing for Sale

Ben Bamber of Sale Sharks arrives during the Investec Champions Cup match between Sale Sharks and Stade Francais Paris at AJ Bell Stadium on December 10, 2023 in Salford, England
Rugby league was Ben Bamber’s first love - Getty Images/Nathan Stirk

Just three miles down the road from the Salford Community Stadium, there is an industrial estate in Irlam that contains the Kingsland Drinks warehouse. It was here, less than two years ago, that Sale second row Ben Bamber spent his nights stacking crates of wine.

Bamber’s shift lasted from 6pm to 6am, although he frequently did overtime as his father-in-law started with the morning shift. When he got home in Flixton, he would sleep until around 3pm, get up, say hello to his family, “have my supper for my breakfast”, and then go again. On days off, he would find work elsewhere. “I did a bit of scaffolding on the side and moving houses and stuff like that,” Bamber told Telegraph Sport in his first newspaper interview. “Dropping off for DFS and doing some groundwork for my dad. Those are long, hard days. It meant getting up at 3am, driving to Birmingham and working with some heavy machines”

Now Bamber is mixing it up with the likes of James Ryan (not that he knew who the Leinster second row was) and the 22-year-old has emerged on the radar of England head coach Steve Borthwick. Second rows with Bamber’s gifts – 6ft 8in, 20st, with dextrous hands and feet – are a rare breed indeed. So why was this physical specimen working night shifts stacking wine crates? To explain, we need to go back a few years.

Bamber grew up obsessed with rugby league, never so much as watching a game of union until he was 18. He was on the books of his boyhood club, Huddersfield Giants, where he caught the eye of Alan Tait, the former Lions and Scotland centre who was scouting rugby league prospects on behalf of the Scottish Rugby Union.

“I spotted Ben playing for Huddersfield and his size stuck out a mile,” Tait says. “You just don’t get 18-year-olds that size and you could see he had the skill-set for union.” Unfortunately for Tait, Bamber had no Scottish ancestry so Tait recommended him to his old Newcastle team-mate Pat Lam, at Bristol Bears. Initially Bamber rejected the advances to cross codes but when the Giants made their third year academy part-time he changed his mind. “I thought actually I want to be a full-time rugby player,” Bamber says. “Travelling down the M62 every day to play reserves after working probably isn’t for me”

Ben Bamber of Sale Sharks is tackled by Juan Johan Van der Mescht of Stade Francais Paris during the Investec Champions Cup match between Sale Sharks and Stade Francais Paris at AJ Bell Stadium on December 10, 2023 in Salford, England
Bamber boasts a rarely seen blend of size and skill - Getty Images/Nathan Stirk

So Bamber began his union education in Somerset, but he almost immediately underwent a shoulder reconstruction. After regaining his fitness he went on loan at Dings Crusaders and was called up for an England Under-20s session only to injure the other shoulder. He could not catch a break and did not enjoy the experience so he quit. “It came on pretty quick and I joined Bristol and suddenly I am in a professional environment,” Bamber says. “I was like, ‘What is this?’ It was completely new. That’s why I left. I just didn’t want to do it anymore. I just wanted a normal job but then I quickly realised how much better it is not having a normal job.”

This is when Bamber’s agent, Tom Beattie, contacted Mike Forshaw, the then Sale defence coach and former league player, to organise a trial in March 2022. Before a Premiership Rugby Cup game, Sale director of rugby Alex Sanderson told Bamber he was getting a permanent contract. “That was mega,” Bamber says. “I honestly thought I wouldn’t get another crack at it but I am now doing it for a club just five minutes from where I live.”

Bamber’s education really accelerated in the 2022-23 season on loan at Sale FC where he was crowned Supporters’ Player of the Year. Another upper-body injury in the summer allowed him to focus on his conditioning. By the end of pre-season, he had put on 10kg of muscle while taking 50 seconds off his Bronco fitness score, which primed him to break through into the first team. Considering where he was two years ago, the smile has barely left his face.

“That’s what gets me through the s--- sessions in pre-season,” Bamber says. “However bad it gets, you just think I would much rather be doing this than stacking crates of wine from six at night till six in the morning. That’s tough. I keep telling the lads, ‘You’re living the dream’.”

Sanderson can wax lyrical about any of his players but his man-love for Bamber knows no bounds. “I don’t know where his ceiling is but we’re nowhere near it yet, particularly once he learns the dark arts of the set-piece,” Sanderson says. Tait has also been keeping tabs on Bamber’s development. “I am not surprised because he had all the tools,” Tait says. “I met Steve Borthwick a couple of weeks ago at a Falcons game and he mentioned Ben, he said he liked him.”

Sale's English lock Ben Bamber (C) wins line-out ball during the European Rugby Champions Cup Pool 4 rugby union match between Sale Sharks and Stade Francais Paris, at the Salford Community Stadium, west of Manchester in north-west England on December 10, 2023
Bamber still has room to grow when it comes to 'the dark arts of the set piece' - Getty Images/Darren Staples

Bamber has ambitions of representing England and the Lions, and is soaking as much information as he can off seasoned second rows such as Jonny Hill and Cobus Wiese, but he is the opposite of a rugby nause. Heading into Sale’s Champions Cup game against Leinster, he had no idea who Ryan, the Ireland lock with 59 caps, was but he believes that ignorance can be bliss.

“For me it is just a load of blokes I get to prove myself against,” Bamber says. “I spoke to the coaches before we went to Leicester in pre-season and they had a good team, and I was like, ‘So what?’ It is better not knowing. If I play well against them then that stands me in a good stead. You want to play against the better teams and better players, but it doesn’t matter what they have done before. If they’re good, I’ll find out on the pitch.”