The Saracens full-back is used to doing it tough, says RW’s Alan Pearey
T’S NOT difficult to pick the standout fixture in this month’s Champions Cup first round: Toulon v Saracens at Stade Félix Mayol. The former champions meet the current champions and Alex Goode is relishing ticking another box on his to-do list.
“I’ve played Toulon before but not in the European Cup,” he says. “We played them in the 2009-10 Challenge Cup, home and away. It was Brendan’s (Venter) first year. We had a big rotation at the time so Michael Horak started in France and I came off the bench. I’d like to play there in a top European game. It will be an unbelievable atmosphere.”
For Sarries, who created history by going unbeaten in last season’s competition, it’s an opportunity to reinforce their credentials as continental kings. For Goode, it’s a fitting stage on which to prove a point to Eddie Jones.
The England coach has steadfastly opted for Mike Brown at national level, even after the media clamour that accompanied Goode’s remarkable match-winning consistency last season. It seemed inconceivable that Goode, the Premiership Player of the Year, would be ignored on the Australia tour but ignored he was, and so the man who has won only four caps in the past 30 months must draw on the same motivation that helped him become a professional player in the first place.
Not many rugby youngsters make it from Goode’s home city of Cambridge and there’s a reason for that.
“It’s a difficult place to come through. The academies folded up around it so it wasn’t in the catchment for Saracens. Northampton stopped doing the academy when I was 13. Leicester went to Norfolk, Saracens to Essex, and we were left on our own. At U16s only two of us from Cambridge got picked for Eastern Counties.”
In his teens, Goode was a fly-half and would practise before school, taking three or four balls to the park to hone his kicking. It gave him an edge over others but the fight for recognition was arduous. He had numerous trials to negotiate to reach the London & South-East U16 team and once there had a ‘prodigy’ in his path.
“I was behind Danny Cipriani, who had done it the year before. Usually the first team got the first game and everyone played in the second game, but the selectors were hell-bent on winning the tournament for some reason. Everyone played except me. Danny started both
Igames (v Midlands and North). They said, ‘You’ll come on at half-time in the second game’, and half-time went and we weren’t winning by enough, then it was ‘ten minutes’, ‘five minutes’ and I was given just 17 minutes. I don’t think England even gave me a rating because it was such a small amount of time.
“But I somehow stuck in there, they wanted to see more, so they chucked me in the (England) B team. It inspired me to work harder because I wasn’t selected (for the firsts). I remember thinking, ‘I haven’t been given a fair deal here’, but you have to do your best with the opportunities you get. Eventually the U16s B went to Millfield and I started games against France West and East and played well.”
Twelve years on, is Goode being given a fair deal by Eddie Jones? England are getting results but a feeling persists that the Saracen, the catalyst for some lethal counter-attacking and an artful game-managing accomplice for Owen Farrell, is being wasted.
Goode will roll up his sleeves as always. The longestserving player at Allianz Park (his first league start was in Richard Hill’s last game), he believes Sarries have the wherewithal to go back-to-back in Europe, something he raised even before their historic triumph last May.
“It was forced into my mouth a bit!” he says now. “But it’s true, the great Man United teams went back-to-back, the Patriots did it in a league (NFL) famous for not letting teams go back-to-back. We want to emulate them and as a young side we have a great opportunity to do that. It’s up to us. We have the hunger and desire.”
The arrival of the “ultra-competitive” Schalk Burger, one of the best link players in world rugby, gives Sarries another string to their bow. Having averaged 33 points in Europe last season, the attack bar has been set high but it’s mentality that makes Sarries the full package.
Says Goode: “What we pride ourselves on is not being a pick-and-choose side. Away from home we expect to deliver and I think that helps us massively. We won at Exeter last year, we won at Wasps, we won at Toulouse. We put in big performances when it matters. “We don’t rely on the crowd or the atmosphere to get us going. We generate our own energy, our own vibe, and we don’t want to lose the respect of each other. We go hard every game and demand that of each other.”
Fiji “Beautiful islands and the friendliest people in the world.” St Lucia “Volcano, boat trips, rainforest, beaches – it has everything.” San Diego “Very relaxed for USA. A beach town but good for going out.”