Saracens playing a game of their own
September 27, 2012
Brad Barritt has established himself as one of the Premiership's best centres © Getty Images
At a glance, you would struggle to sell Saracens to an alien. They've got an annoying song, their brand of rugby is not that easy on the eye, they are on a nomadic campaign to rival Bon Jovi's 'New Jersey Syndicate Tour' and their self-applied tagline 'There's something special happening at Saracens' grates.
But then you delve a little deeper.
They are a club pushing the boundaries - there really does seem to be 'something special' happening at Vicarage Road/ Twickenham/ Wembley/ King Baudouin Stadium/ Goldington Road/ Stadium MK - and eventually the Allianz Park. They don't do things the usual way. You can just imagine what must have been said at their meetings when discussing their new base in Barnet - 'What about the surface we play on? ... Let's not play on real grass - that's so last year'.
The owner, Nigel Wray, has always searched for the unique; from bringing in World Cup-winning skippers John Smit and Francois Pienaar to offering a fan the chance to win £1m for catching three high balls. He's taken the side to South Africa and they will journey to that relatively unknown rugby stronghold of Belgium next month. He's also looked outside of rugby and called on the expertise of ex-England cricket captain Andrew Strauss.
And then you look at the players. They've got a Springbok legend gracing their replacements bench and a team packed with international quality. They have a solid academy and form a good bulk of the England set-up. And they also win matches. So is the true nature of Saracens the glitzy razzmatazz PR persona, or a figure like Steve Borthwick - someone who lives for lineouts and strives for perfection?
At the centre of their current crop of players is Brad Barritt. The England international has taken in every aspect of the renaissance at Sarries from the dark days when they released 18 players back in 2009 to the recent highs of the 2011 Premiership triumph. He, more than most, is qualified to talk about the metamorphosis that the side has undergone in the past few seasons. While he is part of a remarkable team - a side that likes to sing the praises of their sportsmen - he is a grounded and focused individual. However, it was somewhat ironic that one of the best tacklers in the top flight of English rugby could not master the art when we clashed over a game of FIFA 13.
But he will have to learn to tackle on an artificial pitch come February when Sarries move into their new Barnet home complete with 4G surface - a turf, in the spirit of the club, they label as "something unique in UK sport".
"Saracens as a club have always wanted to be a trend setter - a trail blazer." Barritt said at the launch of the latest edition of EA Sports' hugely-popular football game. "It comes from the top through our management Edward Griffiths, Brendan Venter and Mark McCall - they want to create an environment where we work hard but enjoy each other's company. Their whole concept is based around the fact that you are only really there for 7% of your life, the other 93% you're in your own time.
"While you are there in the 7% you do everything to your upmost whether it's hard work, your discipline, your work ethic and the other 93% you just enjoy yourself. That was Brendan Venter's mindset. He was very hard on guys who didn't put the work in but in the same light, if they put in the graft then he was willing to let them live their life as an adult which led to things like trips to Oktoberfest and time in Miami. It's a unique concept, but it's something that the players appreciate and have bought into."
In sport however, nothing is genuinely unique. The current Sarries mould does have echoes of previous and current regimes around rugby - most notably Leicester Tigers. They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and the concept of keeping together a crop of players on a long-term basis, rather than chopping and changing is nothing new in rugby. In the past four years or so, arguably no Leicester player has gone on to greener pastures - new, certainly, but not greener - something which is starting to be exhibited at Saracens.
"Saracens did not want to have a mass exodus at the end of every season which had traditionally happened at the club a few years ago," Barritt explained. "Other than guys who have retired, or the natural fluidity of rugby, they want a core squad that's going to stay together as much as possible. If you look at history, all teams who are successful have been sides who have been built together and have stayed together.
"Leicester are the perfect model for that. They've been the most successful side over the years and this is in part due to succession from within. If a player moves on then it's normally a young academy guy who fills the void. Ultimately that's what Saracens have tried to create.
"If you look at the hooker department, you've got a quality youngster like Jamie George and he has two different role models to work with. You've got John [Smit] the most capped Boks hooker and Schalk [Brits] who is one of the best players in the Premiership. For a young guy like Jamie, while he is a great player now, that sort of experience is only going to add to him."
He has received some bumps and bruises along the way © Getty Images
It is noticeable that both of George's mentors are South African. Saracens risked ostracising some of their supporters when they axed the club stalwarts back in 2009 and replaced them with South Africans but even those recruits are becoming anglicised. England international Barritt was born in Durban, former Test prop Matt Stevens the same - and now the Western Cape's Ernst Joubert is the latest to be linked with Stuart Lancaster's side having qualified on residency grounds.
Barritt is one of Lancaster's babes - the younger generation emerging from the dross of the 2011 World Cup. His physical, enthusiastic and committed nature is what Lancaster hopes to bottle in the run up to the 2015 World Cup.
"It's just brilliant to play for the country. To have had the opportunity to play for England was a dream come true. In the England camp, they've made a big point of getting the culture right and it's a happy and jubilant place and one that's hungry for success.
"Playing for England is the pinnacle of your career. You have to treat every Test like your last as there are always a group of players who want to step into your shoes. In every game there are tighter margins and fewer opportunities than in domestic rugby."
But it is domestic rugby where a player earns their reputation. They have a new song for this season - which I can report is better than the last - and they are committed to playing a more clinical, aesthetically pleasing and attacking brand of rugby when the weather allows.
There will be moments when they have to raise the portcullis and use the boots of Charlie Hodgson and Owen Farrell in a siege-warfare manner but regardless of that, the club will continue to push the boundaries on and off the field - but perhaps not in the lyrical department.
"Saracens young and old - London's northern soul. The big bad wolves are in town and we'll howl at the moon while we knock you around. Allianz and Wembley, Hong Kong and Miami - even Munich withstood the test, only we can do it because we are the best. Here we go - Saracens are going to be the champions."
Brad Barritt was talking at the launch of EA SPORTS FIFA 13. Go to www.facebook.com/EASPORTSFIFA for photos of Premier League stars, Olympians and musicians battling it out in the FIFA 13 Celebrity Cup. The game is out on now on all formats including PlayStation 3, PlayStation Vita, Xbox 360 and iOS
© ESPN EMEA Ltd
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.
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