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

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Aviva Premiership -

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

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