The obvious links with Sale FC – as well as solid relationships with many of the leading clubs in the North-West – provide regular opportunities for Sharks’ younger players to develop and grow as individuals.

It was a recent tweet by National One club Sale FC that caught the eye.

The post was a nod towards Sale Sharks duo James Harper and Ben Bamber who had both been called up to the England ‘A’ squad. It was accompanied by images of the pair trotting out at Heywood Road, donning the colours of the third-tier outfit.

People might be quick to point out that Harper has featured fairly consistently for the Sharks over the last two seasons – only making four appearances for Sale FC in that time – while Bamber has represented Alex Sanderson’s side in the Gallagher Premiership and the Investec Champions Cup this term.

But focusing on Bamber in particular, his promotion into the Sharks first team – and subsequent England ‘A’ recognition – can be attributed to 20 appearances for FC during the 2022/23 National One campaign.

“It was massive,” Bamber, who was Sale FC’s Supporters’ Player of the Season last year, tells National League Rugby. “Before I joined Sharks [following his release from Bristol Bears], I hadn’t played much rugby so just to be able to get a full season under my belt, I think I played 19 or 20 games for FC, so it was good to be actually playing some regular rugby and getting some good minutes and I think it has all helped.”

Whilst the Sharks were reaching their first Premiership final since 2006, Bamber, 23, was more than playing his part in an engrossing National One title race.

In the end, Sale FC fell just short but Sharks teammate and rising star Asher Opoku-Fordjour did have a winners medal around his neck at the conclusion of last season.

Over the last nine to 12 months, the young prop’s stock has continued to grow. Arguably, he burst onto the scene at last year’s Under-20 World Championships for England and has certainly made his mark in the Sharks set-up this term, appearing on 10 occasions for the Premiership outfit.

His list of admirers is only increasing as his dominant displays in the current Under-20s Six Nations are producing a constant stream of raving reviews.

And those at National One club Sedgley Park know all about the talent the 19-year-old sensation possesses. 

Yes, his time at level four in 2022/23 might have been brief, but his five outings for the Tigers were far more than just token appearances, especially in the mind of the man himself. 

“It all allows you to build confidence if you are close with all the boys and they welcome you and the coaches welcome you,” says Opoku-Fordjour, who helped Sedgley win the National Two North title after starting the season on loan at Midlands club Stourbridge.

“It just gives you confidence that when you get on the pitch, you feel free to know what you can do instead of hiding away and shying away from the stuff that you know you’re good at but maybe you wouldn’t try.

“Like in the scrum, there is always going to be big boys in the National Leagues. They get pretty heavy so you get loads of learnings from it. You might get f***** a couple of times but you always learn from it and you come back stronger from it each time so it really does help your development.”

“We have got quite a big academy here so we can get a lot of people playing every week whether that is here [at the Sharks] or out in the National Leagues,” Bamber adds. “As we touched on before, that is only good for everyone’s development so I think just having that relationship with the clubs is huge.”

Whilst time spent in tiers three and four may not completely define the rise of both Bamber and Opoku-Fordjour, the pair do see the value of experiencing National League Rugby.

And it is a feeling which is clearly shared by the Sharks themselves. Ensuring players are getting game time is instrumental in developing the next generation in the North-West and Sam Dugdale can testify to this.

Since re-signing for the Sharks in 2020, the 24-year-old has been a solid component in Sanderson’s side but his journey to the first team has included stints with Sale FC and also a season with National Two North club Fylde.

“We [Sale Sharks] do a meeting where we can see where all the young lads are playing out on loan which is a bit different but more so, it is good to see that they are progressing in the National Leagues,” says Dugdale, who was affiliated with National Two outfit Preston Grasshoppers when he was younger.

“If the lads are enjoying that, then you feel like you can play better because you are enjoying your rugby which will only benefit us at Sale Sharks, if that makes sense.

“It was great for me to play men’s rugby for a season [at Fylde in 18/19]. It is a lot different to the age-grade stuff because it is a lot more physical and you do feel you are learning. The young lads need to get the game time in the National Leagues.”

Evidently, Dugdale is full of gratitude for his time at Woodlands [Fylde RFC’s home ground] and the role National League Rugby clubs are playing in the development of the ‘next generation’ is perhaps embodied by England’s Under-20s.

Opoku-Fordjour aside, 13 of their 23-man squad for their recent Six Nations fixture against Wales had experienced tiers three and four this season, with full-back George Makepeace-Cubitt attached solely to National One title-chasers Rams RFC.

“Talent ID, we said it before, it is not about spotting talent – it is about giving talent opportunities,” said RFU Executive Director of Performance Rugby Conor O’Shea ahead of England ‘A’’s fixture with Portugal last weekend.   

“The whole of rugby creates an England player and the whole of rugby needs to be the best it can possibly be.

“You look at the Under-20s against Wales. You look at Asher. He has played for Sale FC, Champions Cup, Premiership and England 20s. You then look at Josh Bellamy. He was playing for Richmond and Worthing [National Two East]. He is an Under-19 fly-half. 

“Then you look at some of the other members of the squad, their competitive diets were completely different. Ben Redshaw is playing up at Tynedale as well as for Newcastle in Europe and for England Under-20s so everyone has, whether it be National Leagues, you have a place in the eco-system. Playing opportunities for young players is everything. You don’t get better by not playing.”

The fact O’Shea is keen to emphasise the importance of ‘clocking up minutes’ suggests National League Rugby is a crucial cog in the evolution of the pathway and the long-term success of the England men’s senior side.


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Bamber’s appearance off the bench for England ‘A’ on Sunday might be an indicator of this and the towering forward – along with Opoku-Fordjour and Dugdale – are just a sample of those within the Sale Sharks bubble who have benefitted from the opportunities provided by National League Rugby.

The close bond the Sharks have with clubs in the North-West is continuing to blossom [with Academy Manager and Sale FC player Fergus Mulchrone integral to this] and when asked for their final thoughts, Bamber, Opoku-Fordjour and Dugdale show no reluctance to bang the drum for levels three and four.

“It all adds to the build,” Opoku-Fordjour says. “You keep working hard at the lower levels, you are just going to continue gradually getting better, better and better. It all helps. It gets you where you need to be and it is proven it works with Carps [Joe Carpenter: Sale full-back who has spent time with Sale FC and Fylde] and Bevan Rodd [Sale and England prop who had a season with Fylde in 2018/19].

“I agree with Asher’s point that it is proven that it works,” Bamber adds. “We’ve had quite a few boys that have come through FC or gained some good game time there who are now first-teamers. You earn your stripes, get hard-nosed and get used to a bit of graft in the lower leagues so that when you come to the nice bits of playing in the Champions Cup, you enjoy it more!”

“Yeah, I agree with the lads,” Dugdale concludes. “It is all about getting stuck in. Get involved in that team culture where you are on loan at and you will slowly start enjoying your rugby and with that, you will start to get better as well.”

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