Unlocking the Saracens secret

Love them or hate them, it is safe to say they do things differently at Saracens.

Nick Isiekwe (top) jokes with Schalk Brits after scoring a goal past him in a warm-up game of soccer at a Saracens training session during the week.

Take their pre-season tour this summer for example.

Everyone knows about Saracens’ famous away trips during the campaign, which has seen them visit the likes of Amsterdam, Chicago, Miami, Munich and Verbier over the years.

This summer, after winning their second Champions Cup in a row, Bermuda was the destination for pre-season training.

From the outside, it all looked like fun and games in the sunshine as videos emerged on social media of the team practising their passing while jumping off diving boards.

There was also the footage of prop Mako Vunipola’s ‘dive’ that caused quite the splash too.

However, ask anyone at Saracens and they will explain how trips to the likes of Bermuda are a key part of what makes the club so unique and successful.

They bond the squad and over the years it has created a mentality and spirit that arguably cannot be matched by any club in Europe.

Saracens may do things differently, but it certainly works.

“I think there is a belief that there is no lost cause. There is a togetherness,” says full-back Alex Goode.

“We will fight to the very last minute against whoever we play — it is the hallmark of us as a team.

“We won’t give in and we will keep fighting.

“Whoever plays, whoever comes in, I’ve got absolute faith that they will put their bodies on the line and fly into them.”

Saracens are going into this season’s Champions Cup looking for a third title in a row and they have been drawn in a Pool alongside Clermont Auvergne, Northampton Saints and Ospreys.

However, there was a time when Saracens were not the force they are now.

Indeed when Goode joined the club’s academy back in 2006 the prospect of being back-to-back European champions would have been absolute fantasy.

Indeed, Saracens’ last piece of silverware at that point had come when they won the Tetley’s Bitter Cup in 1998.

“When I first came to the club as a young kid we were in the odd semi-final of the Premiership and Europe, but we didn’t have an expectation of ourselves,” says Goode.

“It was a rarity. One season we were there and then the next season we were down the bottom.”

All that changed though in 2009 as a South African consortium, led by businessman Johann Rupert, transformed the club.

They took part-ownership of Saracens and with Edward Griffiths as chief executive and Brendan Venter as director of rugby things began to change at pace.

The whole mentality of the club was transformed and lofty targets were set.

It was at times a turbulent period and fans can still recall the so-called ‘night of the long knives’ in February 2009 when 18 players were axed. The new regime was certainly ambitious.

The changes that were put in place, however, have been the bedrock of Saracens’ success today and looking back Goode can still remember that first meeting with Venter.

“He set out a vision that was different,” he says. “But I think we would all admit it doesn’t just change overnight.

“You don’t just go: ‘Oh, well one person said that, of course we are going to win everything now. It will be fantastic!’

“It doesn’t work like that, it takes months and sometimes years to really develop that.

“But certainly over that pre-season the way we did things was very different. It was a very different way to look at it and we really understood and bought into it.

We made it not about the winning or losing, but about the performance and how we do things around the place. It changed a lot of things. We got to a Premiership final that first year with I think one international in the team.

The second year we managed to come away with silverware, but we struggled in Europe during that first year or two.”

Saracens may have struggled in continental competition initially, but they are now the undisputed team to beat in this season’s Champions Cup and at the heart of their rise to the top has been director of rugby Mark McCall.

The likes of Griffith and Venter may have got the ball rolling, but it is McCall who has taken the club to new heights.

Given his understated nature there is perhaps a tendency for the 49-year-old’s efforts to be overlooked, however he is the glue holding everything together.

People may naturally be drawn to the on-field performances from the likes of stars Maro Itoje and Owen Farrell, but behind the scenes McCall has been steering the ship ever since he was made Director of rugby in 2010.

“Mark has had a massive role to play,” says Goode.

“Obviously the journey stared with Brendan [Venter] and Edward [Griffiths], but Brendan left after a year and a half or so and Mark took us forward and he has really steered the ship from there on.

"He is a quiet man who goes under the radar but his role...it cannot be understated in what he has done.

"He is a calm authority around the place and he has a very, very strong tactical nous and an ability to understand what we are trying to achieve so he can guided everyone round.”

So given all that, does McCall get the credit he deserves? “I have to ask you guys,” says Goode.

“As a club we value him massively. We know his role that he has played — he has been huge.

“Everyone has huge respect for him. So I think he would say as long as the players and the staff respect him and everyone is listening intently to him — which we are — then he is pretty happy.”

And, given how Saracens have dominated Europe during the past two seasons, it would be tough to bet against McCall being a very happy man again come May.

 


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