Saracens’ band of brothers building dynasty to stand the test of time
Players’ special bond is geared towards a third straight European title and beyond, says Kate Rowan
If Saracens captain Brad Barritt hoists the Champions Cup aloft in Bilbao’s San Mames Stadium next May 12, Saracens would be achieving the distinction of being three-in-a-row champions. That would put them in the rarefied company of Toulon, the only side to have completed the feat in Europe’s premier club competition.
What Toulon managed to do – and what Saracens are aiming for – was dynasty-building. It was on the mind of Mark McCall, the Saracens director of rugby, after his side seized the trophy for the first time in Lyon in 2016. “The best of this team is yet to come. It is very young, very experienced, but very young. We have got a very hungry, very motivated group of players and hopefully in the future there will be more days like this,” he said.
They enjoyed another day like that last May, but how do you build a winning team that becomes a dynasty? A strong set-piece, a good balance between flair and defensive nous across the back line, a player with a metronomic boot who will keep the scoreboard ticking over in the mould of former Toulon fly-half Jonny Wilkinson or Saracens’ Owen Farrell?
When you scratch the surface, tactical astuteness and a well-stocked squad are just a start. In the build-up to Toulon’s second and third consecutive European titles, there was a flurry of social-media activity, with the Australian duo of Drew Mitchell and Matt Giteau regularly tweeting photos of Mediterranean swimming expeditions with Leigh Halfpenny.
Bryan Habana was fond of team selfies and there was good-natured ribbing of the perfectionist Wilkinson. It was obvious Toulon were not afraid to bond or to celebrate the diversity of the characters that made up the squad.
North London is a long way from the Cote d’Azur, but what Saracens share with Toulon is a desire to create an enjoyable environment for their players. Barritt is keen to emphasise it. “I think a big ingredient of what our success is geared around is that people are excited to go to work,” he said.
“You have got guys who energise others for various different reasons, whether it is to improve as a rugby player or generally just to enjoy the culture.”
England and Lions lock Maro Itoje, who recently completed a degree in politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies, shed light on Saracens’ winning combination of personalities. “Every team has a bunch of characters,” he said.
“It’s impossible to have 15 players the same. When it comes to getting successful teams together, you need characters who behave differently, operate differently, think differently, but who all have the goal of being successful, all determined to do or sacrifice certain things to allow the team to be successful. We have people like Wiggy [Richard Wigglesworth] and Faz [Owen Farrell].
“They’re very loud, confident, boisterous characters constantly pushing the team forward. Then there are slightly quieter guys who always play with a smile on their face, like Schalk Brits, who’s a little ball of energy.
“Then the cooler, calmer characters, silky smooth in everything they do, like Marcelo [Bosch], Duncan Taylor. Then you get guys who have infectious laughs, great people to be around who bind the team together, like the Vunipola brothers, Jamie George. I could go on.”
McCall also believes that a happy camp leads to silverware. “We want to have the best learning environment that we can. We believe that is when people want to come and want to learn, want to enjoy themselves, give each other time.”
The director of rugby also wants his coaching staff to be learning from the best across the world. “We sent our coaching staff over the summer to some very good organisations across the water and they found out a lot about different learning environments, and they have tried to stimulate the players in different kinds of ways to get the best out of them.
“They went to clubs such as the Hurricanes and the Crusaders. They spent a week with the Crusaders, who have just won the Super 18. They were blown away by the environment they had there.”
One other crucial ingredient in Saracens’ recipe for success has been knowing the pain of losing, as they did to Toulon, 23-6 in the 2014 Heineken Cup final.
“The experience of what we learnt over a five-year period to get us eventually to be champions, we learnt along the way,” Barritt said. “We learnt the hard way, and in having to deal with heartache, it made us a better, more resilient, more rounded team. So, I think now it starts fresh and there is an even bigger challenge to take the title back.”
Up for the cup: Maro Itoje aims to help Saracens equal Toulon’s European feat