Rhodes now relishing life as colossus of Saracens
NICK VERDIER meets the black sheep who’s turned into a starring wolf for Saracens
It can be a daunting prospect for a new, internationally unheralded wolf entering the fierce Premiership jungle, but among a pack full of Lions, Pumas and Springboks, Michael Rhodes has worked his way up the food chain to sit right on top after scooping Saracens’ player of the year award.
Despite five seasons in Super Rugby with the Lions and Stormers, Rhodes was relatively unheard of in this country after missing out on Springbok honours. So, when Mark McCall brought him to the club, only the most ardent Super Rugby fans knew of him, plus possibly some from Leicester Tigers, who may have remembered him scoring a try at Welford Road for the Barbarians in their 125th anniversary match in 2014.
Surely he was just going to be a squad man, because how could a player struggling to impose himself in South Africa find a place in an all-international pack including Mako Vunipola, Jamie George, George Kruis, Maro Itoje, Billy Vunipola, Juan Figallo and Jacques Burger?
For Rhodes, the answer was simple, and meeting him at the club’s training base in St Albans on Tuesday it became clear. He is one determined individual who thrives on improving himself.
Like the great Jaques Burger before him, Rhodes relishes the physical and loves putting his body on the line for the team.
“Saracens is a team full of superstars but it’s not your name that gets you in the team. It’s your performances and that’s one of the reasons I like it so much here,” Rhodes said.
“The guys don’t put up with any egos here. No matter if you’re Maro Itoje, Owen Farell or any of the big stars, you’re working just as hard.
“There’s a great work ethic and it suits my personality. I just wanted to come here, play rugby and try to make that No.6 jersey mine. That’s all I thought about and to win the double last year was far more than I expected.”
Not much changed this season; one outstanding back rower named Burger retired and one arrived – Springbok star Schalk. Even still, Rhodes remained a key component. Having played a large part in Saracens securing that Premiership and Champions Cup double last May, this season Rhodes has risen to new heights.
So much so, he scooped the coveted players’ player award at last week’s club awards dinner. Standing 6ft 5in and weighing in at 17st 3lbs, he has also filled in at lock when required. Yesterday’s Champions Cup final against Clermont was his 29th game of the season and he is hoping for two more to come.
“To be voted as the player of the season by your teammates means even more and is huge for me,” he added. “I knew a couple of guys from back in South Africa like Schalk Brits and Brad Barritt and that helped but it’s an easy place to fit in regardless.
“Mark knows the players but, maybe more importantly, he knows the person he wants to come into the squad. That’s why we get along so well and I’m very happy here. My wife and I had our baby boy Jack last Monday so I couldn’t be in a better place right now.”
With their European campaign over, Saracens will now focus on retaining their Premiership crown with a remake of last year’s final against Exeter in the semi-finals next week.
Last week’s defeat to Wasps saw them have to settle for third in the league, forcing them to travel to Sandy Park to take on the high-flying Chiefs, who claimed eight bonus-point wins from their last eight outings.
Rhodes knows the Saracens’ pack must be up for the fight to slow the Chiefs’ progress, but as a true wolf now, is prepared for another lung-busting hunt.
He said: “The regular season is over now and there’s no point dwelling on it. Sandy Park is a tough place to go and win but we’ll back ourselves.
“That’s what we did in Munster in the Champions Cup semi-final. We stuck to our guns and managed to get away with the result we wanted.
“We have huge trust in the plan the coaches come up with and we’re prepared to execute it for as long as we have to so the result fall our way
“I’m the odd one out in the pack so it would be a dream come true to play at Test level”
in the end. Exeter are a great attacking team and it’s going to be hard to stop them from scoring points. We’ll just have to hope our defence will be good enough on the day to put ourselves in a good position.
“However many points they score we’ll have to score at least one more than them.”
Earlier this week, World Rugby announced the residency rules will be extended to five years but it won’t be until 2020, meaning Rhodes will be eligible to play for England next summer after three years in North London.
He added: “I’m the odd-one out in the pack right now (without a cap) so it’d be a dream true come true to play at Test level.
“There was a time I thought I could have made the step up in South Africa but it didn’t happen for me for one reason or another.
“I’ll qualify to play for England next summer but I’m not holding my breath. There’s still a year to go and a lot can happen until then.
“You can’t get too far ahead in this game but having all these internationals here at the club gives me a nice insight about the qualities required to make it.”
Dominant: Michael Rhodes wins a line out against Wasps
Benched: Schalk Burger