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Mike Blair: 'I took a lot on my shoulders at Edinburgh but I don't regret it'

The former Edinburgh coach on why he had to step down, and his new life in Japan.

Gus Warr: 'It's trying to be a bit gobby to annoy someone ever so slightly'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Malcolm Couzens/Getty Images)

“Ladies and gentlemen. Start. Your. Engines!” So bellowed Gus Warr when we got to see him in Mud, Sweat and Tears, the behind-the-scenes documentary on the closing stages of the 2022/23 Gallagher Premiership season which culminated in Sale agonisingly running out of road versus Saracens at Twickenham.


Warr’s ‘engine’ call came when he was on the mic at the revved-up training ground barbecue celebrating the Sharks’ progress to the final for the first time in 17 years.

That little vignette suggested how the 24-year-old scrum-half is a little bit of a Jack the lad around Carrington, something his boss Alex Sanderson certainly advocates. “I probably underestimated him like everyone has most of his life if I am being very honest about it. He is first-choice quality.”

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Quality that the director of rugby is now negotiating to keep at the club and not have him whisked away by the flirtatious Edinburgh at the end of the season. Warr, the Manchester-born England U20, has his Scottish connections, seeing out his second-level education at the Dollar Academy in Clackmannanshire before trying to make his professional rugby dream come true at Sale while studying at the University of Manchester.

For certain, it’s not been plain sailing. “This lad forever has been a second and third choice, has scrapped for contracts and been lower down the pecking order so has been so used to fighting to get there, to earn a spot, to keep a spot, and now he is there,” surmised Sanderson about a career trajectory that was initially bottlenecked at Sale, required loan stints at Doncaster and then needed Raffi Quirke’s rotten run with injury to stitch Warr into the No9 shirt post-Faf de Klerk leaving in the summer of 2022.

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A post shared by Gus Warr (@warr_gus)

“You have got someone like a Raffi Quirke in your squad who is such an X-factor, can do things other people can’t do, but what Gus does consistently well all the time a lot of other people can’t do. He isn’t the fastest, isn’t the most powerful, but he has got to be one of the best decision makers, game managers in the half-back position that I have been lucky enough to work with.

“At the start of the season, I was like, ‘Who is our No1? Is it Gus, is it Raf?’ I don’t think it matters as long as they are both on form and we can use them both. We are very lucky to have them both and that is why we want to keep both. That is part of the salary cap management.


“Normally you have one person who gets paid the lion’s share and there is someone else who is quite obvious second choice; I don’t see that as the case for these two now. Gus has changed my mind from Raffi’s obvious X-factor to his consistent ability to put the ball in the right place at the right time. That is an X-factor, it’s just not as showy.”

Warr’s match numbers are now eye-watering. He initially started just a measly three times in 24 Gallagher Premiership/Champions Cup games across four seasons that also featured Championship spells at the Knights. However, in the season and a half since Springboks Rugby World Cup winner de Klerk went plying his trade in Japan, Warr has been the No9 in 30 of his 33 league and European appearances and is set for another run when Stade Francais visit the AJ Bell this Sunday.

It’s quite the turnaround for someone who beerily quipped to his mates at the 2022 Leicester versus Saracens Premiership final that he would be starting the 2023 decider. He has done that and more, even knocking out three full 80-minute appearances in succession last month in a position where players seldom go the distance.

“It’s been enjoyable,” he told RugbyPass. “As a player, you want to play as much as possible so it has been really good fun. Once you get into the game and you get your rhythm, sometimes it might be better for the nine to stay on if the game is close; it’s just the rhythm you find, you’re in your flow, you’re up to speed with the game.”


It helps to have England out-half George Ford keeping him lively. “There is always so much you can learn from George, every week there are new tips. We are beginning to understand each other’s games even better than last year.

“We got better towards the end of last year but then this year we are gelling even more. It’s good fun and it also means you have that level of international class outside you. He has got what, 90-odd caps for England, to have him orchestrating things outside you and giving you extra pointers just makes my life a whole lot easier,” he said, going on to name his Sale career highlights.

“There are a few. The semi-final (against Leicester) was pretty special, to win the home semi. And then playing against the likes of (Antoine) Dupont and stuff has been pretty cool.”

Warr has been labelled a “cringey energy giver”. Cringey might sound negative but it’s intended as a genuine compliment. Being a bundle of enthusiasm in the Sale environment was something he gleaned from de Klerk. “Faf is a bundle of energy, always gave positive energy to the squad no matter what the circumstance was. So it was learning what you need to be when you are off-pitch, making sure you get the detail in like he did and then trying to add to the environment.

“Then on the pitch, we are probably slightly different players but again it was just trying to pick the nuggets from his brain but at the same time, I had Will Cliff, who was massive for me. He was probably more the player that I am, more the kicking nine, so I have learned a lot from him and again off the pitch, he constantly added to the environment which is what we try and do.

“I just try and be as happy and as cheerful as possible when I’m in here. You are a professional rugby player, it’s a job that I have always wanted to do since I was a kid so to be able to play and do it for a living is unbelievable. I’m just trying to have a laugh with my mates. When it’s serious it will be serious and when it’s not I will try and be as lighthearted as possible and take the p*** as much as I can as well.

“I do enjoy a good social so I try and make sure that everyone as much as possible buys into it properly. We had a fancy dress as our away do in pre-season. You had to come as a famous TV group or a famous group, but if two groups came the same there would be a fun punishment.

“We didn’t have a winner, we just made sure there was a loser and it was the academy lads. I can’t even remember what they came as but it wasn’t very good. That’s the best way to put it. We then had an Oktoberfest and we’re currently trying to figure out what we are going to do for the Christmas do, which is quite hard because have got quite short turnarounds.”

Warr’s energy-giving antics extend to on-pitch banter, a word uttered here and there during games aimed at ruffling the opposition nine and earning Sale some sort of momentary advantage. He won’t go into specifics of his war stories but he will continue to chance his arm, even though there is a chance that anything he attempts this Sunday will get lost in translation against Hugo Zabalza from France.

“I try as much as possible,” he enthused about his penchant for verbal sparring. “Whatever edge you can get to put someone off their game, even if it just for 30 seconds and you might get some sort of incremental gain. I have said stuff and then they try and hunt you, try and get you, stuff like that.

“It’s not like I’m pre-planning, it’s the heat of the moment. A lot of it is just light-hearted banter and trying to see if it will get a rise out of anyone. Or just try to plant something in their mind and it just takes their attention off ever so slightly. If you get that it might create something further down the line.

“We don’t have a focus on it as a team, I just go out and do. It’s that energy-giving. If I can say something that rouses and gets us going, but it’s not a clearly defined tactic from us as a team. It’s the heat of the moment, an individual sort of thing.

“It’s the idea of trying to be a bit gobby, trying to find an edge, trying to annoy someone ever so slightly. It’s nothing too much but a lot of it is trying to be a nuisance, don’t give anybody a free ride.”

Warr didn’t lick it off the stones. His father, who played for Sale before the sport turned pro, and his older brother were also nines. “I have been compared by Dad’s mates to being exactly what he was like, a bit feisty, a bit gobby but the same demeanour on the pitch apparently.”

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Rugby at Sale, then, was in the bloodline. “I was a mascot for my eighth birthday. Was pictured with Dean Schofield, Tom Curtis’ stepdad, which is a nice link. It was a couple of years after Sale won the Premiership.” That Warr is now all grown up and at the heart of the Sharks renewed battle for honours owes much to the Championship, a breeding ground he wants to see better resources and cherished.

“I’d a big spell where I didn’t really play, I went to Doncaster Knights and that was massive for me in terms of playing at a competitive level, played against the Saracens team that got relegated in the Champ for a year. So you played a couple of games against them, a couple of games against Ealing, that level helped me understand what it takes to be a starting nine going up against what was a Prem side and what possibly could be a Prem side going forward and then just being in and around the set-up, understanding the game plan.

“Not necessarily playing every week but listening to the coaches, watching as a travelling reserve the year I came back after Donny. That all helps you understand the game plan and then it’s all about being given an opportunity and seizing it with both hands.

“As a professional rugby player you have got to play to keep getting better and the more viable and better leagues that we have below the Premiership going into the Championship and Nat One, if you can get a good level of rugby where everything is competitive and games are meaningful, it’s only going to drive standards.

“If you look all over Twitter, there are constant stats about how many people go on to play international rugby have played in the Championship or National One, so we have to make sure these leagues are viable. If it wasn’t for my time at Donny, I wouldn’t have had that learning curve I had that has enabled me to come out and perform for Sale.”

Warr signed off on the opening block of Premiership fixtures as the league’s busiest passer with 382, the most kicks in play (105) and the second most kicked metres (2,639) behind Harry Randall. He was also joint top with Finn Russell and Ben Youngs in the retained kicks chart (12).

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Let’s talk kicking then. “Individually it is the type of nine that I am. My kicking is the type of scrum-half I am so for me to go out and execute a kicking game, if I can keep doing that hopefully it means I keep putting us in the best position on the pitch and then we can let our power game and our forwards use the set-piece and we have got the quick boys out on the edge. Hopefully, if I put us in the right area, they will execute when we get down there.

“It’s almost like a game of chess if you think of it like that. It’s all about manoeuvering opposition into a position where you can then strike fast and you can catch them out, whether it is through another kick or through a counterattack. Because kicking creates opportunities, that is what it’s all about. Putting teams under pressure and hopefully once they are under pressure, they break or an opportunity comes off the back of that.”

Sale may have been blown away last weekend at Harlequins, but Warr is enjoying the Sanderson evolution. “The whole culture around the club had grown so much. Everybody in the club has bought into this idea of where we want to go and how we get there and it’s about how we all add to the environment to make sure we can get back to competing and winning things.

“His themes are always very good, he always themes the week very well. Like in the All or Nothing with (Mikel) Arteta, whenever we play French teams away in Europe he will get some big speakers out and we will train with some loud noise and upbeat music just to recreate an atmosphere around that.

“It would be huge (to win trophies). It’s almost 20 years since we have won a major honor. Yes, we won the Prem Cup but to go and win a Prem would be pretty special. We are proud of our home record and playing in Manchester. We’re trying to make it as much a difficult place to come as possible.”


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