From Billesley Common, Birmingham in National League One to Twickenham for the Premiership Final, Joe Carpenter’s season has been a tale of dramatic personal progress.
Sale’s 21-year-old, Leeds-born full-back started this breakthrough campaign in English rugby’s third tier, having been hampered by injury setbacks since crossing the Pennines when Yorkshire Carnegie were forced to abandon their professional status.
Carpenter started for Sale FC against Birmingham Moseley on September 3 and he is still trying to rationalise what has happened since.
When the door opened ajar, the rookie burst through it. Injuries to other Sharks full-backs meant director of rugby Alex Sanderson recalled Carpenter from his loan stint and pitched him into first-team action. He has been such a revelation as Sale’s new No 15 – resolute under the high ball and a dashing creator and finisher in attack – that he was named in the Premiership Team of the Year.
Joe Carpenter was pitched him into first-team action at Sae after injuries to other full-backs
The 21-year-old was such a success that he was named in Premiership Team of the Year
It has all happened so fast, it is no wonder that it feels surreal.
‘You would like to think you would get here, but the coach at Sale FC text me before the semi-final and he was like, “From playing Moseley to a Prem semi-final”,’ said Carpenter. ‘I would always like to think I would have got a Premiership opportunity, but to think at the start of the year that I would be starting in a Prem Final, I would have been like, “Do one, it’s not going to happen this year”.
‘It came out of nowhere really. Unfortunately, Luke (James) got a knock and Jase (Woodward) was down at the time as well, so it was the perfect time to take the opportunity and hopefully I’ve done that this year. I played for Sale FC last season and at the start of this year. Then the Prem Cup came round, we played Leicester and I got an opportunity against Exeter a couple of weeks after.’
All of a sudden, Carpenter was propelled from National League One matches against part-timers to taking on some of the finest full-backs in Europe. ‘When I first got the opportunity, I was quite giddy,’ he said. ‘I played Hogg in the first game; a guy I’ve 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. But now we have gone through the cycle of playing all the teams and it is just about trying to be better in your position on the day.’
As a proud Yorkshireman, Carpenter had come through the ranks at what was then Yorkshire Carnegie – now back to being Leeds Tykes – before he and so many other academy graduates there were left to find another club.
He moved to Sale just before his 18th birthday, but many of his contemporaries struggled for an outlet to fulfil their career ambitions.
‘My year and the year above got the brunt of it, as we were hoping to move into a professional environment at the time,’ he said of the grim upheaval at Headingley. ‘We were a good side in the Championship and that’s how we saw it all progressing.
‘When it all happened, our academy manager just sent out a list of the players and said if any clubs wanted them, please take them. They’d put all this time into us and wanted to see us progress. I was fortunate to get a spot here, but a lot of lads didn’t. They weren’t going into a Carnegie professional environment, but they weren’t getting anywhere else. It stumped a lot of them for a few years, which was a big shame.’
Having made the move west, Carpenter has now made his mark in the top division and can’t wait to be involved in the final. For a decade, he has watched the annual, end-of-season club showpiece and marvelled at the spectacle.
Carpenter is still coming to terms with his dramatic breakthrough this season
‘Just the craziest thing for me is that I’ve watched the Prem Final every year for the past 10 or 11 years,’ he said. ‘So for my first season to end in a Prem Final. I’ve watched the big players take part in it for so many years, then it’s like, “Wow, we’re going to be in that and hopefully winning that”.
‘You see the celebrations and everything afterwards and you’re just watching it on the telly thinking, “That looks amazing”. Now we have an opportunity to potentially do that.’
Win or lose, Sale will be flying to Marbella on Sunday for a squad party in the sun. Carpenter hopes they will have to find space for some excess baggage.
‘That will be a well-needed blow-out and hopefully we can get the trophy on the plane with us,’ he said. ‘That would be pretty funny.’