Rugby Union: Rise and highs of Diprose

Tim Glover meets a No 8 whose loyalty to his home club may be paid in double; Tetley's Bitter Cup final: Saracens and their captain revel in the big- time as they head for a London showdown
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IT IS the morning after a scary night against Harlequins and Tony Diprose is submerged in a world-class sofa at Saracens' threadbare old ground in Southgate, north London. Appropriately, the sofa is a gift from Nigel Wray, the club's benefactor, who has changed the image and fortunes of Sarries out of all recognition.

Diprose is sitting pretty. "I feel as sore as anything," he said, "but it's a completely different soreness after you've won than after you've lost."

Two years ago Saracens went to the bear-pit known as Kingsholm in what they thought was a match to decide relegation and were savaged by Gloucester. "It was the worse experience I've ever had on the rugby field," Diprose said. "When I walked through all those Gloucester supporters it felt like the end of the world." In fact, it was only the beginning. Saracens were lucky. It was subsequently decided there would be no relegation that season.

Four nights ago Saracens went to the Stoop in search of a victory that would keep alive their hopes of a league and cup double. With nine minutes remaining they trailed Harlequins by 10 points. "There were signs of panic," Diprose said. "I told them that we'd been through a hell of a lot to get into this position and it was no time to throw it away. We had to dig ourselves out of a hole."

Saracens scored 12 points, survived a last-second scare in which Quins came within inches of scoring and won 28-26. Today they play London Irish at Vicarage Road, holding a one-point lead over Newcastle in the Premiership and next Saturday meet Wasps in the final of the Tetley's Bitter Cup at Twickenham.

Diprose joined Sarries from Campion School in Hornchurch in 1991 - and they were relegated from Division One. He was a gawky teenager who had excelled at swimming and throwing the discus. The club was a little pocket, with a council-owned ground in the heart of soccer territory. And the pocket had a hole in it. With no money, they were accustomed not only to losing but losing good players, such as Ben Clarke, Dean Ryan and Jason Leonard.

"There was the temptation to leave," Diprose said, "but I always enjoyed my rugby here and I felt I was developing and learning. Saracens are my club. Then things changed dramatically."

That's an understatement.

If money talks, Wray, who is worth about pounds 50m, is multi-lingual. Diprose and Richard Hill were the first to sign professional contracts and for Saracens, for whom a jellied eel was considered a delicacy, the world was now its oyster and champagne bar.

Philippe Sella, the world's most-capped player, joined from France, Michael Lynagh, the world's leading points scorer, from Australia. They had never heard of Saracens and they wouldn't know where Southgate was. To cap it all they got Francois Pienaar, the great Springbok who lifted the World Cup in 1995 and whose jersey was worn by Nelson Mandela. When Pienaar was paraded at the Trocadero (a Wray concern) in London, Diprose was gobsmacked. "I had no idea. It was as big a surprise to me as to everybody else. I was immensely happy... the chance of playing alongside him."

There were those who thought Wray was off his Trocadero. What these players had in common was that their international careers were finished. But there was another common factor - they passed the Wray personality test. "What he wants," Diprose said, "are good guys who can play, guys who will also fit in with the social side. They give 100 per cent and are thoroughly professional. We've realised that you can't spend, spend, spend, and all have helped in bringing along youngsters at the club. We don't want to be a flash in the pan."

Lynagh and Sella bow out after the cup final but Pienaar will continue to have a huge influence. "He regards the club as a family," Diprose said, "and in that respect Nigel Wray is the head. We try and look after each other. There's a great rapport."

Diprose, voted Young Player of the Year in 1994, is the leader of a side that not only contains three former Test captains but also, in Pienaar, the club's player-coach. Too many chiefs, perhaps? "I'd never met Francois before and I'm sure he didn't have a clue who I was," Diprose said. "We have developed a relationship that works. He supports me and gives me advice and I'd be foolish to ignore it. At first I thought it would be difficult but we work in harness to make decisions on the pitch. His drive and ambition rubs off on everyone. We knew we had some good players but maybe we didn't really believe we could be the best in the country. By the way he acts and behaves and thinks about the game, he has made us believe that."

While Diprose was touring Argentina with England and later South Africa with the Lions last summer, Pienaar was running the socks off the Saracens' squad. "He wanted us to be the fittest team in the league. That was his priority. The pre-season training was so much harder and then we concentrated on skills rather then contact. There was no more battering the hell out of each other on a Monday night. He's put pace in everything we do and he often tells me to keep things moving. We are far better playing on a fast ground."

On Thursday, before going into what they describe as a recovery session, Diprose admitted the pace was beginning to tell. "The match is very physical, very taxing on the bodies. There are a lot of tired players around." Diprose, who is only 25, does not appear to be one of them and he should add to his seven caps when England tour the Southern Hemisphere. "I need to be one of the best three back-row players in the country," he said.

Mark Evans, the Sarries' director of rugby and another loyalist from the days when the side were a soft touch, has seen Diprose become the epitome of a modern No 8 with brilliant handling skills. "Although he's young, Dippy has a good brain and is very confident in his ability," he said. "Don't be taken in by that baby-faced exterior. He is a very, very determined young man."

In the cup final Diprose will be up against another useful No 8 in Lawrence Dallaglio, the England and Wasps captain. When they toured Australia with England Under-21, Diprose was on the blindside, Dallaglio openside and Hill was the No 8.

"It's funny," Diprose said. "With the old Saracens we played nearly every game as underdogs. Now everyone wants to be where we are." Sitting comfortably in the driving seat.