When Alex Sanderson announced Sale’s squad for their opening match of the season against Bath last month, Denny Solomona was absent from the list. No great surprise on the face of it, given the one-time England wing had featured only once in the Premiership since Sanderson took over in January, but for Solomona it was a setback. He had approached pre-season with a renewed determination and it hit him like a “ton of bricks”; he was angry .
On Saturday, however, Solomona starts his second successive match for Sale. Sanderson has spoken of how impressed he has been by the 28-year-old’s ability to get over his initial frustration. Indeed, the Sharks director of rugby has described Solomona’s reintegration into the side as one of his proudest achievements at the club and to understand why it is worth rewinding the clock. For it is little over a year since Solomona laid bare his demons in a candid and raw interview – the past problems with drinking, drugs and the suicidal thoughts that he had encountered as a result of depression. Comparatively, Solomona cuts a more content figure today but as he says, “depression is always there” and he has recently described his long spell out of the side last season as a “dark time”. He had become bored with the sport and even considered retiring.
“The journey I’ve been through and been on – that I’m still on – hasn’t been smooth sailing,” says Solomona. “It has been pretty tough. It was nice to reflect on where I’ve come from, how hard I’ve worked on and off the pitch to get myself back into a position where I’m back in the team, through my own merit. Not through anything else other than my hard work and my determination. That’s the most rewarding thing. I believe I was chosen due to my own hard work, my own resilience and my own mental strength – just to get back gives a bit of confidence going forward.
“Depression is always there. Your cycles are always going to repeat but without the journey I’ve been on, without the person I have been, I wouldn’t be the person and father I am today. You’ve got to go through a lot of thick stuff before you can go through the nice, smooth stuff.”
As Sanderson has recently pointed out, key to Solomona’s current contentment is his family life – he has a young daughter, Roux, he refers to simply as “his world” – and around the club he, Manu Tuilagi and Rohan Janse van Rensburg are inseparable. They have been billed the Three Amigos and when not training or sitting together in team meetings they can be found on the golf course. It was August 2017 when Solomona and Tuilagi were sent home from an England camp after a drunken night out, but walking and talking are now the order of the day.
“I’ve only recently started playing golf but we try to play once a week,” he says. “We try to pick one person out from the team and take them out. We’re just chatting, not in a rugby environment, just about life. Out walking, playing golf, it just keeps you present, keeps you mindful. It keeps the conversation flowing, you’re just worrying about the shot and then walking to the ball, talking about what you’ve got on your mind or want to get off your chest. I think we walk about 20,000 steps, it’s just nice to get some active recovery and have a coffee at the end.”
While Solomona starts in the more familiar position on the wing against Gloucester on Saturday, he has appeared this season at full-back having been asked by the Sale coaches about switching positions. Solomona grew up playing at full-back but as a burgeoning star he made his breakthrough in rugby league as a winger and, a victim of his own success, he stayed there.
“The coaches approached me and asked if I fancied transitioning to 15, or if I even had a thought of playing there,” says Solomona. “I started at full-back at school but when an outside-back debuts it’s normally on the wing and unfortunately in that sense I did very well on the wing so I ended up playing my whole career there. I had ambitions to play there but there was never the opportunity. But I’m just excited to be out there again, enjoying my footie on and off the pitch. It’s pretty good at the minute. I’m loving it. It presents new challenges and new opportunities as the new season comes. Finding a different role and trying to reinvent myself, not only in the team but in a position where I feel as if I can offer a lot more.”
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Sanderson has been full of praise for Solomona’s attitude in pre-season as well as his response to being omitted against Bath. He sees no reason why Solomona cannot add to his five England caps – the last of which came three years ago – should he transfer the kind of form and application he has shown in training into matches on a more consistent basis. Solomona, however, prefers to stay in the present.
“[Last season] was a struggle,” he says. “Going from being picked every week, then Alex coming in, trying to find his own feet in the club. He has his team that he trusted. It was tough on and off the field but I’m a professional athlete and I know someone is going to be disappointed, not everyone is going to get a run out. I was making sure that if they did need me I was going to be ready but at the same time I wasn’t holding my breath. Going forward I try to focus on my process and how I do things week to week, regardless of the outcome. I put it on Instagram the other day, regardless of the outcome your process never changes. You shouldn’t act differently according to outcome.”