Rhodes now rel­ish­ing life as colos­sus of Sara­cens

NICK VERDIER meets the black sheep who’s turned into a star­ring wolf for Sara­cens

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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.”

PIC­TURES: Getty Images

Dom­i­nant: Michael Rhodes wins a line out against Wasps

Benched: Schalk Burger

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