‘Class of 2020’ ready to shine in the face of Saracens’ relegation
Salary cap breach has now opened the door for a new crop of emerging talent to develop in the Championship next season
Of all the silver linings to Saracens’ relegation from the Premiership, perhaps the brightest will be the opportunity for the next generation to take flight.
The last time Saracens faced such upheaval was in February 2009, when director of rugby Brendan Venter released 18 players in what was called “the night of the long knives”. Up stepped Saracens academy’s class of 2008 – Owen Farrell, Jamie George, George Kruis, Jackson Wray and Will Fraser. Arguably the most talented year group any club have produced, they, along with Maro Itoje – who burst on the scene in 2013 – were the foundations for Saracens to capture five Premiership and three European titles.
That dynasty is now at an end, with Kruis among 15 internationals who have left the club, whether permanently or on loan. Into the breach comes Saracens’ class of 2020: Manu Vunipola, Joel Kpoku, Sean Reffell, Andy Christie, Elliott Obatoyinbo and Kapeli Pifeleti, who all signed senior contracts this summer and played in Saracens’ 36-20 victory over Gloucester.
The cohort has long been touted for great things and even a coach as understated as Mark McCall becomes animated when discussing their potential. “This is a generation who we are very excited about,” McCall, the director of rugby, said. “I think they will get opportunities over the next few weeks but they will definitely be playing lots of rugby in the Championship. They are the future of the club.”
There is an even greater “band of brothers” feel about this group as four of them – Vunipola, Reffell, Christie and Obatoyinbo – along with prop Sam Crean, who was on the bench against Gloucester, were in the same school team at Harrow.
Jesse Coulson, the former director of rugby at Harrow, who oversaw the development of Itoje and England team-mate Billy Vunipola, said this group, whom he now represents as director of Furyan Sports Management, are “right up there” in terms of potential.
Obatoyinbo started against Harlequins
at full-back on Aug 22 and shifted to the wing against Gloucester. “I’d compare him to Anthony Watson,” Coulson said. “He has electric feet and will set things alight when given the opportunity.”
Christie and Reffell, who started on the bench against Harlequins, are both back-rows. Coulson describes Reffell, an openside, as a “dark horse”, making up for a lot of bulk with a prodigious work-rate and tackle count. Christie is an excellent ball-carrier and can play at blindside or No8. Vunipola, cousin of Mako and Billy, is the most established of the quartet, having started eight league matches this season, and is being mentored by Farrell. “He is cool and calm, but he has that X-factor to be able to take the ball to the line,” Coulson said.
Even before they were promoted to the senior squad, the academy group had made more than 100 appearances between them. Mike Hynard, the Saracens academy manager, said: “What we know from experience of the class of 2008 is that if you can bring groups of players together who are good friends at 15-17, it benefits everyone. They know each other inside out and what buttons to press to get the best out of each other.”
Unlike in football, Premiership clubs can only recruit academy players who fall within defined catchment areas, which in theory should mean an even distribution of young talent across the league. Where Saracens excel is in managing the integration of those youngsters into the first team.
“We have a great track record in developing home-grown players and turning them into top-quality Premiership and international playBy
ers,” Hynard said. “We have a number of coaches who have been in developmental roles who are potentially a bit more patient than other environments might be.”
Second-row Kpoku is a good example of a player who stands to benefit from relegation. Earlier this year, he found his path to the first team blocked by four international locks in Itoje, Kruis, Nick Isiekwe and Will Skelton. Kruis and Skelton have now departed, while Isiekwe has joined Northampton on loan.
“I am convinced next season can be a trigger for him to really kick on and push himself in contention for selection for the following season,” Hynard said. “For all of them, I am convinced a year in the Championship and receiving far greater focus from senior coaches is going to maximise their development.”
Conversely, throwing them in too soon can have an equally detrimental effect. “If you give too much too soon it can break a player’s development by destroying their confidence and the coaches’ confidence in the player,” Hynard said. “One of the things we are very good at here is giving players the opportunity when they are ready.”
Everyone at Saracens is wary not to compare them directly to the class of 2008. “You can draw some parallels but you would want each group to be taken on its own merits,” Hynard said.
Coulson is more bullish in his assessment of their ceiling. “You get a feeling for young players if their mindset is right for trying to become a professional player,” he said. “They all have that. If they keep going at this trajectory I see no reason why they cannot all be playing for England further down the track.”
‘They know each other inside out and what buttons to press to get the best out of each other’