‘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

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport - Daniel Schofield deputy rugby cor­re­spon­dent

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’

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