The last time that Sale Sharks won the Premiership they did so with a Yorkshire-born full-back. At this point the similarities seem to end. Jason Robinson came into that 2005-06 season as a World Cup winner while Joe Carpenter started his campaign at Billesley Common playing for Sale RFC against Molseley.
From National One, Carpenter has ended up in the Premiership team of the year and will start at Twickenham opposite Alex Goode, who is starting his ninth final of his storied career. “It did come out of nowhere,” Carpenter said. Except it has not.
Carpenter’s emergence this season owes much to his perseverance and a show of faith by Alex Sanderson, but no one around the Sharks was surprised to see the 21-year-old grab his opportunity as surely as he does a high ball.
“From someone who has an outside view, I feel like everyone knew what he was capable of and what he was able to do, but for you I think it was just injuries,” wing Tom Roebuck, who is flatmates with Carpenter, said. “He had two years of just getting injured having to go out on loan, tear it up and then get injured again. Everyone knew the capability was there, he just needed to get on the pitch and show it. When it happened, it was not really a shock because we knew it was going to be special.”
Carpenter and Roebuck were not always friends. At youth level, they played opposite each other for Yorkshire and Cheshire. “He was a gobby little s----,” says Roebuck, who was already on Sale’s books. Carpenter, however, had no direct path to professional rugby being on the books of the Yorkshire Carnegie academy which was being wound down. “I was fortunate to get a spot here, but a lot of the lads didn’t,” Carpenter said. “It stumped a lot of them for a few years, which was a big shame.”
Carpenter ‘flying the flag for Yorkshire’
Like Roebuck, who is attracting interest from both England and Scotland, Carpenter also thinks of himself as dual qualified “Yorkshire and England” and his development continues to be a point of pride for Ben Lazenby, his former academy manager. “Even if he is in a Sale shirt, he is regarded as a Yorkshire player by people within the pathway and is held up as a model for guys in the county,” Lazenby said. “At Twickenham, he is flying the flag for Yorkshire.”
The ‘frenemies” from either side of the Pennines now constitute an important part of Sale’s young and northern identity that Sanderson is building. There is also a South African contingent - just as there was a Gallic element in the 2006 winning side - but they have been brought together within the Manchester melting pot.
“You can tell that on the pitch,” Carpenter said. “There have been moments when we should have conceded tries and the boys have stuck at it and grounded it out. You wouldn’t do it if you didn’t love playing for the club.”
Carpenter, who had a wretched spell with injuries, readily admits he would have told you to “do one” if you had predicted that he would be starting in the Premiership final when he was turning out for Sale RFC in front of a few hundred people. The club’s director of rugby Jonathan Keep had no doubt that it would be a matter of time before he broke through. “He just had this fearless quality that is quite rare in players that young,” Keep said. “He is fearless under the high ball, but he is also fearless in taking his opportunity when it comes.”
‘I was excited to see what I was like against Hogg and Steward’
The opportunity finally came when he started a Premiership Cup match before injuries to Luke James and Jason Woodward opened the door for him to start Premiership games against Exeter and Leicester. “When I first got the opportunity, I was quite giddy,” Carpenter said. “I played Stuart Hogg in the first game, a guy I have grown up watching do pretty special things. Then I played Freddie Steward a couple of weeks later. I was quite excited to see what I was like against those boys.”
Not every Premiership coach is as willing to throw a youngster in at the deep end like Sanderson has but his view is that it would be more of a risk not to trust them. “No-one’s truly believed in them, seen their potential and pushed them to strive to get there,” Sanderson said. “That’s not a hard thing for me to do. What’s the alternative; to squash them and tell them they’re no good? No, every day I tell them they’re good and that they can get better. Every day I tell them what I think, which is that these guys are as good as anything out there.”
There are not many back threes with more quality or experience than the Saracens trio of Goode, Sean Maitland and Max Malins versus the Sale trio of Carpenter, Roebuck and Arron Reed who will be all starting their first ever match at Twickenham. Yet as with everything else Carpenter remains fearless as he aims to emulate Robinson and the Sale side of 2006.
“They’ve got the experience but that doesn’t always count for everything,” Carpenter said. “We want to create a legacy that we can really belong to. We don’t know too much about that 2006 final – me anyway – but knowing that we’ve won the title before and seeing the names of the guys who were in that is a big driver for us to do it again.”