Sale Sharks skipper Jono Ross feels “the time is right” for retirement – but not before one last challenge that could deliver a dream career finale.
The South African number eight will lead Sale into their biggest game for 17 years on Saturday, with Saracens standing between them and the Gallagher Premiership title.
The 32-year-old has made more than 150 Sale appearances, including topping the Premiership tackle-count for three successive seasons, and proved a driving force behind their resurgence led by rugby director Alex Sanderson.
And taking silverware back to the north-west of England would mean mission accomplished as he hangs up his boots.
“I am massively proud of where the club has come from over the last six or seven years,” Ross said.
“When I arrived, we finished eighth or ninth and the goal was to make the play-offs, which we did.
“Now to be in the final is massively special and rewarding for all the work that has gone in, but the job is not done and we have another big hurdle this weekend.
“I think you have got to learn from games like the defeat to Exeter in the semi-finals a couple of years ago, and the mistakes we made.
“Maybe we expended too much energy during the week, but the way we have wanted to play this year we have really found our identity.
“We have another game against the best team in the league, we are going in as underdogs and we have to go out there and make sure it is a special day.”
Tributes flowed from inside and outside the club when Ross announced his retirement a month ago, with Sanderson describing him as a player who “epitomised everything Sale Sharks stand for both on and off the pitch,” in addition to highlighting his tactical knowledge, emotional intelligence and communication skills.
And while the Johannesburg-born forward now prepares to step away, he will do it content in the knowledge that everything has aligned.
“I must say that I feel as ready as I ever have to finish. I think the time is right for me,” he added.
“It is a privilege to be able to finish on my terms – that’s a huge thing for me.
“I said to myself when I start finding it a little unenjoyable going out to play when it’s cold and wet in December-January, maybe I know the time is right, and I would say that in December and January I definitely knew the time was right.”
Ross, meanwhile, is in no doubt about the size of Sanderson’s role in making Sale title contenders.
“When Alex came in, he saw a lot of potential in the group and guys have been given a chance,” Ross said.
“If you look at the likes of Joe Carpenter, Tom Roebuck, Bevan Rodd and Gus Warr, they have taken their chance and excelled under Alex Sanderson. That is a testament to them and him.
“It has been fantastic for the group. The young guys bring so much energy, hunger and drive.
“Over the last 18 months-two years that Alex has been here I think we have created a great synergy where we are able to say what we feel as a senior group and the coaches respond to that.
“When Alex first arrived I said ‘I will challenge you’ and he said he would challenge me, but it would never be in front of the squad because that is not respectful.
“Hopefully, off the back of that, he improved as a coach and I definitely improved as a person and a player because of our relationship.”